Why ‘tock-tick’ does not sound right to your ears [HT Effie Seiberg]; referencing The language rules we know – but don’t know we know. Mark Forsyth tasted internet fame this week when a passage from a book he wrote went viral. He explains more language secrets that native speakers know without knowing.—Mark Forsyth, BBC. See also Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence: Secrets of the Perfect Turn of Phrase from which the quote is an excerpt.
Ever wondered why we say tick-tock, not tock-tick, or ding-dong, not dongding; 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. Mishmash, 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.