05 February 2022

Why Tock-Tick Doesn't Sound Right

For today's post, I'm using something my wife told me she saw on Facebook the other day. As you know, some FB posts aren't exactly worthwhile and/or entertaining. (I'm sure some of mine aren't.) I thought this one was both.

I saw no byline on the following, but it was posted at the For Reading Addicts site, and they said it came from an unnamed BBC article. Some of the piece sounds correct and some sounds a little iffy, but I found it interesting. I love this kind of thing anyway.

Here it is:


Ever wondered 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, explains a BBC article, is: "If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then 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's another unwritten rule at work in the name Little Red Riding Hood, says the article. 

"Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose noun. So you can 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. It won't, though, 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, always say clip-clop, never clop-clip."

This rule even has a technical name, if you care to know it--the rule of ablaut reduplication--but then life is simpler knowing that we know the rule without knowing it.

One thing I'm not sure about is the part about the order of multiple adjectives. Maybe opinion-size-age-etc. is the preferred order, but saying the adjectives have to be in that order sounds a little tock-tick to my ears. And the supposed rule that the order has to go I, A, O for three-worders sounds funky also. Big Bad Wolf indeed fits the bill, but Little Orphan Annie, sweet Mother Mary, big fat liar, Jolly Green Giant, little old lady, etc., don't. Maybe the I, A, O sequence just sounds more pleasing to the ear.

I should add the fact that I did locate the article from which the FB post appears to have been taken--"Ablaut Reduplication," written two years ago by Romit Limbu, at ALM Translations--and, to be fair, the original article does say there are exceptions to the adjective-order rule.

What do you think about all this? Comments welcome!

P. S. Maybe you would say Kong King in a roll call. ("Present," he roared . . .)


  1. An interesting mystery of the English language!

  2. Hmmm..."Kong King" sounds Asian...

  3. John, I found this fascinating. Not only are you a top tip wordsmith, but you could have a roar-ripping hop-hip careet.


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