I thought I’d win the spelling bee
And get right to the top,
But I started to spell ‘banana,’
And I didn’t know when to stop.
The poem’s title, ‘Banananananananana’, as well as underlining the joke draws our attention to how unusual a spelling banana is. Once you start the string of alternating a’s and n’s that constitute the bulk of the word, it’s easy to imagine absent-mindedly overshooting the mark, stuck in a groove like Langton’s Ant on its endless highway.
English has several types of reduplication, including repeating, ablaut, rhyming, and contrastive focus. Most of the examples in those links are part of everyday English, but banananananananana is decidedly outside the standard language. (The same of course can be said for many nonsense pop lyrics: Sha la la la la, Da do ron ron ron, Do be do be do.)
Another kind of playful reduplication occurs in certain agentive compounds like finder-outerer and turner backerer (Google them for examples). But we should look first at the slightly more normal finder-outer and turner backer types, which pattern I’ll call X-er-Y-er. Even these occupy a grey area, since their morphology is neither uniform nor fully standardised.
When we inflect a verb to turn an action into its doer, one –er (or other suffix*) is normally enough: teach → teacher, speak → speaker, and so on. With more complex verb phrases that include a particle it’s more awkward. If someone paints a room, they’re a painter, but if they do up the room are they a do-upper, a doer-up, a doer-upper, or what?
The last style, doer-upper (X-er-Y-er), despite the seeming surfeit of suffixes, is generally preferred in current usage. A common example of this ‘double agentive’ is fixer-upper, which usually means a house in need of fixing up but can also refer to the person who does the fixing up. Another one I saw recently is leaflet giver-outers, which my friend Ultan wrote about in Madrid.
Ben Zimmer looked at this issue in a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, writing about an ‘opt-out’ movement in the US – parents who are unhappy with the standardised state exams set for their children are opting out. So are they opt-outers, opters-out, or opter-outers?
Legal experts may have been the first to grapple with this thorny bit of morphology, in references to people who opt out of class-action lawsuits. A search on the LexisNexis database reveals that all three of these alternatives are attested in case law, though the preferred term, dating back to 1968, is “opters-out.”
The use of “opters-out” follows the traditional pattern of words like “passers-by” or “hangers-on.” Adding “-er” to both parts to create “opter-outer” is a newer innovation, but one that has been popularized by such terms as “fixer-upper” for a house in need of repairs, or the tagline for Bounty paper towels, “the quicker picker-upper.”
The testing dissidents, for their part, are mostly opting for “opt-outer”—likely because “opt-out” has become such a fixed expression, and “-er” just gets tacked on to the end.
Obviously there is plenty of variation, and the patterns preferred are likely to vary for different compounds and in different speech communities; rhythm and rhyme may play a part in the choice. X-er-Y-er predominates nowadays, with the more traditional X-er-Y style losing ground. This is confirmed by research reported at Literal-Minded by Neal Whitman, who also notes some remarkably extended complex phrases, such as putter-upper-wither (one who puts up with).
And what are we to make of fixer-upperer, with yet another –er added? Lady Demelza, an Australian reader, emailed me with this form of reduplication she has come across in ‘Strine’ (a phonetic rendering of Australian [English]). She writes, ‘Strine will often double the –er suffix of an agent noun to –erer. This most commonly happens with compound and hyphenated words or phrases.’
Demelza offers as examples fixer-upperer and keeper-in-toucherer. Looking into their distribution online, she found fixer-upperer used pretty much exclusively by Australian speakers. This entry on the reduplicative –erer suffix in an online slang dictionary also offers hanger-onerer, sorter-outerer, and washer-upperer, all following the same extravagant pattern.
The suffixation in these phrases, being multiply superfluous, is almost like a metalinguistic joke showing people you know there’s something odd about fixer-upper, so why not double down on the suffixation, or in this case triple down, because it’s funner. Funnerer.
A reduplication similar to banananananananana that I’ve noticed in my own speech is theseses or theseseses, as a jocular plural of thesis. (I edit a lot of these theses.) Something about the standard plural theses /ˈθiːsiːz/, with its ‘ees-eez’ near-reduplication, just makes me want to keep it going a bit. I saw a similar one in Robert Bernen’s book Tales from the Blue Stacks, set in northwest Ireland:
‘A dog that kills to suck the blood is not like another that tears the sheep and leaves them. That one will go out in twoses and threeses, and always to another place, but this un’ll go always alone.’
Which in turn brings to mind Moses’ toeses and the Tolkien character Gollum’s birdses and hobbitses rather than birds and hobbits.
What other examples can you think of? And have you noticed what patterns you prefer for fixer-upper-type phrases, or does it depend on the stress or other factors?
Tim Feist at the Morph blog has a useful post on this: ‘The headache-bringer-oner(er) of the English agentive suffix’.
A few more from Twitter:
And one I just read in Hair of the Dogma by Myles na Gopaleen (aka Flann O’Brien):
Is it old age or sentimentimentality? never mind that last word – the typewriter keeps on commenting, and can now and again invent a beautiful and unextinguishable word like ‘endored’. I leave it.
Donal Ryan’s novel The Thing About December has a couple of nice examples. Masterses (i.e., Master’s theses):
Granted, he was no great prize of a chap; he had never given her any reason to be below in the Post Office boasting about him like some women who would talk out loud in the queue for fear anyone would not accidentally overhear about their sons who were doing Masterses, or just finishing their accountancy exams . . .
And ladder-faller-offer (someone who fell off a ladder):
Johnsey wasn’t fond of this new development: he didn’t want to share the Lovely Voice’s attentions with this clumsy ladder-faller-offer.
Brian Moore’s novel The Doctor’s Wife:
“I’m sorry, barging in on you at this hour. You were probably off to bed, were you?”
“Agnes was. But I’m a late stayer-upper,” Dr. Deane lied.
A.O.D. Claxton’s Suffolk Dialect of the 20th Century includes a note on a reduplicative feature of that variety of English:
A kind of double plural is sometimes used, particularly when referring to small numbers
“Count em out in twoes and threeses.”
“He wear nineses boots.”
“Fowerses and Elevenses (meals).” . . .
In the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives a kind of additional octave is frequently added to the scale of degrees, e.g. ‘lesserer,’ ‘lessest of all’, ‘worser’, ‘worsest,’ ‘most worsest’, ‘the leastest little thing’. [comma placement as in the original]
Margaret Atwood’s story ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’, in her collection of the same name:
“Guess what Ed said today?” Sally says.
Marylynn leans further forward. “What?” she says, with the eagerness of one joining in a familiar game.
“He said, ‘Some of these femininists go too far,'” Sally reports. “‘Femininists.’ Isn’t that sweet?”
* Specifically an agentive nominaliser.