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Harum-scarum topsy-turvy hurly-burly words

HOITY-TOITY, mishmash, hocus-pocus. Double words are expressive. They often convey a more precise meaning than their scholarly counterparts. Take higgledy-piggledy. When he was describing the refreshments at a Dutch f^ete in Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving made the following observation: ``And then there were apple pies and peach pies and pumpkin pies; besides slices of ham and smoked beef; and moreover delectable dishes of preserved plums, and peaches, and pears, and quinces, not to mention broiled shad and roasted chickens, together with bowls of milk and cream, all mingled higgledy-piggledy pretty much as I have enumerated them, with the motherly teapot sending up its clouds of vapor from the midst.'' Surely no other word would be so desirable and quaint.

Another effective word is hurly-burly. Imagine the witch in ``Macbeth'' proclaiming, ``When the tumultous uproar's done,/When the battle's lost and won!'' No doubt Shakespeare chose hurly-burly with exact care for the proper imagery. He would not select a word in a willy-nilly manner.

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Evidently Ibsen (or his translator) did not disapprove of double words, either; or he would have used a synonym for topsy-turvy in this quotation from ``Peer Gynt'': ``A lie, turned topsy-turvy, can be prinked and tinseled out, decked in plumage new and fine, till none knows its lean old carcass.''

Double words often promote brevity. The ``old-fashioned, pompous, unimaginative'' person listened to ``a musical instrument in which the sound is produced by turning a crank.'' Translation: The fuddy-duddy listened to the hurdy-gurdy. Or this: Tom Sawyer was a boy who ``lacked a sense of responsibility,'' was ``careless of consequences,'' and exhibited ``undue haste or lack of deliberation or caution.'' Translation: Tom was a harum-scarum boy. Or: There was a ``heterogeneous mixture'' of ``small trivial articles intended for ornament.'' Translation: ``There was a hodgepodge of knickknacks.'

Not all double words are picturesque. Some are disparaging. To do a flip-flop is to invite accusations of indecisiveness and vacillation (as any politician knows.) To be called wishy-washy is far from complimentary. Also, one should steer a course between dilly-dallying and proceeding pell-mell in order to avoid a label of extremism.

Mark Twain said, ``The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.'' Double words have their place. N'est-ce pas, Monsieur Roget?

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