Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Bish! Bash! Bosh!

I expect you've heard this phrase, the OED says it has been around since the 1960s. Originally meaning a series of blows, like bang! bang! bang! - but now slang for something completely quickly and easily. Harry Enfield popularised it with Loadsamoney in the 1980s and Jamie uses it for his quick'n'easy recipes. 

I'm unable to verify the rumour that b-b-b appeared in a book about Freemasonry in 1924 [I suspect that's an urban myth] 
But why bish bash bosh? Why not bish bosh bash or bash bish bosh ? [or the other 3 arrangements of these words] 
The answer is the Unwritten Rule of Ablaut Reduplication. 

And 99% of native English speakers have never heard of this- but most of them will follow this rule instinctively.
Let me give you some more common terms- ping pong, mish mash, flip flop, shilly shally, tick tock.
Let's try them the other way round pong ping, mash mish, flop flipshally shilly, tock tick.
They just do not sound right do they? The URofAR says that "if there are three words with these vowels, then the order must go I,A,O - and if just two of them, then the I word goes first. Your horse's hooves all make the same noise when the hit the ground - but we still say clip clop, never clop clip.
Isn't it fascinating?
Maybe you think this is just a load of flimflam - if so, then go away and suck on a TacTic, until you understand what I'm on about!!

Note for word-nerds - ablaut simply means the variation of vowels in the same word root. From the German and Latin for 'off sound'

I'm off to practice my hip-hop in a sing-song voice! Hope I don't meet Boris Johnson playing ping-pong [or whiff-whaff as he calls it]


  1. Soory Ang - I actually say Bish Bosh Bash (rather than Bish Bash Bosh) - possibly because the first time I heard it, the person said Bish-bosh-bash

    1. How intriguing. Now I want to know if the French have a similar rule - piff paff pouf?

  2. So interesting. I wonder is it the same in other languages? Ask Bob about French. (Not me!)

  3. When I was a child we played, and sang out, "Ching Chang Walla". (Paper, rock, scissors).

  4. That is a fascinating rule! Ding dong is another one, of course. Musically, it feels like the i sound is stronger than the o and beat 1 is generally stronger than beat 2 in music. I liked learning the German word. Reminds me of my old favourite, the Umlaut!x

  5. The interesting exception to this is Milly-Molly-Mandy!

    1. Yes, we thought of that too, but decided that Milly Mandy Molly just sounded all wrong. How about Mindy, Mandy, Monday?!


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