Ever wonder why we say tick-tock,
not tock-tick, or ding-dong, not dong-ding: King Kong, not Kong King?
Turns out it is one of the unwritten rules of English that native speakers know without knowing.
The rule, explained in a BBC article, is: “If there are three words then the order must always be I, A, O. If there are two words, the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip-top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic-tac, sing-song, ding-dong, King Kong, ping-pong.”
There is another unwritten rule at work in the name Little Red Riding Hood.
Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in the order, opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun. So you have “a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife.” But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.
That explains why we say “little green men,” not “green little men.” But “Big Bad Wolf” sounds like a gross violation of the opinion (bad)-size (big)-noun (wolf) order. But not if you recall the first rule about the I-A-O order.
That rule seems inviolable: all four of a horse’s feet make exactly the same sound. But we always say clip-clop, never clop-clip.
This rule even has a technical name —the rule of ablaut reduplication—but life is simpler knowing that we know the rule without knowing it.
Play It By Ear: If a word sequence sounds wrong, it is probably wrong.
THANK YOU to Charlie Moger for sending this to our attention. Do you remember how the wizard told you the senior Wizard of Ads partners were in extremely high demand but had little to no capacity? Charlie Moger is one of those people. A really HUGE client approached Charlie last week and put a lot of money on the table, but what they wanted Charlie to do was not what Charlie likes doing. So he referred that client to a Wizard of Ads partner who is really good at what they needed and who LIKES doing it. This is the advantage to having nearly 70 partners. Thanks for all you do Charlie! – Indy