January 28, 2008

super duper tuesday

Reduplication is a common process to create new words. It gives us colorful words like wishy-washy (ablaut reduplication, which changes the vowel), willy-nilly (rhyming reduplication, which changes a consonant), razzle-dazzle and the everyday word bye-bye (exact reduplication). There's also the specific type of "shm reduplication", imported from Yiddish, as in money-shmoney, maven-shmaven, which is often used as an exclamation expressing disdain or sarcasm. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, many people use reduplication when they speak to babies or pets ("Do you have a boo-boo?"). So, where does "super duper" figure in -- a question discussed in an article in the business section of today's New York Times.

Super Duper Tuesday sounds like a special mealtime offering at Friendly’s or Applebee’s. But it is an expression coined last February by Bill Schneider, CNN’s senior political analyst, during a discussion on “The Situation Room” about the crowded calendar for presidential primaries.

Since then, “Super Duper Tuesday” has been mentioned 71 times on CNN, and it has gained an edge over phrases like Tsunami Tuesday and Giga Tuesday in efforts to distinguish this Feb. 5 from what has traditionally been called Super Tuesday, the date when the greatest number of states hold primary elections. [...]

“It’s a pretty standard thing language-wise to do this,” said Erin McKean, editor of the language quarterly Verbatim, referring to the “super duper” coinage, known in linguistics as reduplication. “In written and spoken language most people try to strike a balance between attention-getting novelty and getting their point across. One way to do that is vary one part of a phrase and have the rest of it be the same old, same old.”

Ms. McKean added: “We’re all familiar with the concept of comparatives and superlatives — good, better, best. But you can’t do that with ‘super.’ So how do you make it more intense? You add an intensifier. [...]

Other language experts said the expanded phrase could be viewed simply as part of the adjective arms race. “I think there is a tendency to keep coming up with more extreme superlatives,” said Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English dictionary. “That’s why any existing superlative loses power. ‘Awesome’ now merely means good.”

I think the phrase is simply too long to catch on. But we'll see. After all, super duper Tuesday is just around the corner.

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