• 72°

Keener: Tick-Tock— or is it Tock-Tick?

Hmmmm, not sure. But, have you ever really thought about why it is that we do say “tick-tock” instead of “tock-tick?” At least I don’t say that. Do you?

I also do not say “dong-ding” or “hop-hip.”

There is actually an explanation for this and I will now tell you. In the English language there exists an unwritten rule of which even you native speakers may not be aware. Here it is: if there are two or three descriptive words together—and this is especially true in the case of onomatopoeia words which imitate sounds such as the pitter-patter of rain drops falling or the clip-clop of horse’s hooves—then the order of the words depends on this order of the vowels … i, a, and o.

Let me explain. In the case of “tick-tock,” the “i” in “tick” appears in the alphabet before the “o” in “tock.” Therefore we say “tick-tock” whether we realize it or not. “Other examples are “chit-chat” (a) and “flip-flop (o).” See how the i, a, o rule works?

But, then, back to the sound of horse’s hooves. Even though all four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound, pesky we always say “clip-clop” and never “clop-clop.”

We also say “mish-mash, zig-zag, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip-top, hip-hop, sing-song, ding-dong and ping-pong.” If you are like that dunderheaded guy who once-upon-a-time lamentably invited a brainiac girl to play pong-ping at the hop-hip, then you now know why that girl flatly rejected you. Shame, shame upon your head! You doltish, brutish, know-nothing were not following this strict rule of English!

And we’re not through yet. Have you ever wondered why we call that wee, be-caped girl who was afraid of wolves, “Little Red Riding Hood?” Well, here goes. There is another rule in our quirky English language which states that adjectives (those words that describe nouns), must be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material and purpose. An example of this is: “I have nice, little, old, rectangular, green, French, steel, cake knife.”

See how the words just flow? Now if you had said, “I have a rectangular, French, little, nice, cake, green, old, steel knife.” you can clearly see how the words get tangled up with each other. Furthermore, if you’d had the audacity to blurt out that mess of words to that girl from the hip-hop, she would have banned you from the English speaking world. Boy be gone!

So, you see, we cannot mess around with word order or we’ll sound like English nincompoops. “Little green men” must not be called “Green little men” and the “Big Bad Wolf” must never be referred to as the “Bad Big Wolf.” It’s just wrong.

And if, at this point, you may be doubting everything I’ve just said, you’ll be surprised to learn there is an actual technical name for all this nonsense. It is called “The Rule of Ablaut Reduplication.” Yippee for us that we knew all these rules without knowing we even knew all these rules. Up with us!

So, having explained all that to you, I now must stop typing and close my laptop, small, silver and go eat a chocolate, brown, round, sweet, chip, walnut cookie.