English language Etymology Usage

Double, double toil and trouble

Q: I’m noticing an increase in the use of doubled words for emphasis. I suspect that some of this doubled-wordiness is related to Rachel Maddow, who often says “really, really” on her MSNBC show. Is the use of a repeated word ever grammatically correct?

A: There’s nothing grammatically wrong with repeating a word once or twice for emphasis, but overdoing it can get tiresome and turn off listeners or readers.

Writers have been doubling and tripling words – adjectives, adverbs, verbs, pronouns, etc. – for hundreds of years, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Dryden, for example, uses a tripled adjective in his 1697 ode “Alexander’s Feast”: “Happy, happy, happy pair! / None but the brave, / None but the brave, / None but the brave deserves the fair.”

In The Compleat Angler (1653), Izaak Walton includes a doubled adverb when he notes that the salmon “is very, very seldom observed to bite at a Minnow.”

Shakespeare uses a doubled verb to begin this passage from As You Like It (1600): “Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree / The fair, the chaste and unexpressive she.”

And of course the Three Witches do some doubling in Macbeth (written a few years later): “Double, double toil and trouble; / Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.”

And a character in Thomas S. Surr’s 1806 novel A Winter in London employs a pair of tripled pronouns to explain why he’s using the first person: “I cannot unself or unsex myself sufficiently to write in the narrative form; it must be I – I – I, and all about me – me – me.”

As for “really,” people have been doubling it for more than a century.

The earliest citation in the OED is from a 1908 book by Granville G. Greenwood about questions concerning the authorship of Shakespeare’s works: “Really, really, there must be some limits even to Stratfordian demands on our credulity!”

Is the usage being overused today? Probably. I got nearly 41 million hits when I googled “really, really,” and over 3 million more when I googled “really, really, really.”

But I don’t think you can blame Rachel Maddow for this. If you want to blame someone, blame the Spice Girls. In “Wannabe,” the group’s 1996 hit debut single, the girls sing: “I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna really really really wanna zigazig ha.”

And that’s not all. The word “really” appears in the song 26 times — in singles, doubles, and triples. Really!

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