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The frequentative form of a word is one which indicates repeated or frequent action. Although no longer really productive in making new words in English, historically it was a very common method of coining related words from an original stem.

In English, the frequentative forms of verbs ended in -le, or -er. For example, the verb flutter, "to move with quick flapping movements", derives from the verb float. Sometimes, there is very little difference between the stem word and the frequentative, as in the pairs wag/waggle "move quickly from side to side", and prate/prattle "talk incessantly".

However, other pairs have moved quite far apart as with top "highest point" and topple "fall down head first". In some cases, the frequentative continues to exist, but the original root is obsolete, as with the frequentative tumble, "to fall down; to perform acrobatics", which derives from the Old English verb tumbian, "to dance; to leap".

Frequentative nouns are often formed by combining two different vowel grades from the same word in a process called reduplication. Take for example, the word chat, "to talk in an informal way". Not only does English have the frequentative word chatter, which is both a noun and a verb, but it also has the frequentative noun chitchat with the internal vowel change in the chit- element. Nearly always in these combinations, there is a high vowel, usually /ɪ/ followed by a lower vowel in a process known as ablaut. (Ablaut is also responsible for the irregular verbs loved by students worldwide, like swim-swam-swum, and irregular plurals like tooth, teeth).

Frequentative nouns very often have the idea of inconstancy - something is like this and then it is like that - a zigzag road zigs then it zags, a clock ticks then it tocks. There is change as well as frequency in these nouns.  


Now test your knowledge of frequentative nouns in our tip-top quiz!


1. What is the name of a light rubber or plastic sandal with a thong between the big and second toe? questionmark

a) shilly-shally  b) flip-flop  c) snip-snap  d) flimflam


2. What do we call a group of diverse low-value objects and ornaments? questionmark

a) bric-a-brac  b) ship-shape  c) cling-clang  d) riff-raff



3. What might we call one of the above low value objects? questionmark

a) a tittle-tattle  b) a mish-mash  c) a ding-dong  d) a knick-knack


4. What is insincere talk that is intended to deceive? questionmark

a) jim-jams  b) flimflam  c) pitter-patter  d) teeter-totter


5. Which people are considered common, ill-mannered and undesirable? questionmark

a) chiffchaff  b) chit-chat  c) riff-raff  d) clip-clop


6. What is a series of light tapping sounds, for example the sound of raindrops or tiny feet? questionmark

a) snip-snap  b) pitter-patter  c) spit-spat  d) criss-cross


7. What is absurd nonsense? questionmark

a) zigzag  b) tip-top  c) sing-song  d) fiddle-faddle



8. What is the plank found in playgrounds (above), on which children sit at both ends and bounce up and down? questionmark

a) a twiddle-twaddle  b) a ping-pong  c) a see-saw  d) a tick-tock


9. And what do people in the northern and western states of the USA call it? questionmark

a) a wigwam  b) a teeter-totter  c) a tingle-tangle d) a jingle-jangle


10. What is a confusing mixture or collection of unrelated things? questionmark

a) a mish-mash  b) a splish-splash  c) a kitty-cat  d) a wishy-washy


11. What is unsubstantiated rumour or gossip? questionmark

a) dilly-dally  b) tittle-tattle  c) click-clack  d) tiki-taka


clackersClackers mish-mashMish-mashThese words are memorable or amusing and perhaps because of this, they often travel well and are borrowed by other languages.

The Spanish phrase tiki-taka quickly became internationally known, to describe the short, intricate passing game played by Barcelona and the Spanish national team. Tiki-taka is the Spanish name for the toy known in English as clackers (left) and the toy goes back and forth, like the ball in football, the tick-tock of a pendulum or the see-saw of the playground.

Table tennis is internationally known as ping-pong. This word was first used in 1900, and is a registered trademark of Parker Brothers. Similarly, the word mish-mash from English mash - to crush to a pulp, is Mischmasch in German, mish mos in Norwegian and Mиcx Macx in Serbian. In Bulgaria, миш маш is also a popular dish, made of scrambled eggs, cheese, onions, tomatoes and red peppers.  


Let's now turn to some examples of frequentative verbs. A good example of these is the verb sparkle - to shine with flashes of light. This is the frequentative form of the word spark - a small, fiery particle. A spark is a single, momentary thing, but when something sparkles, it is repeated and lasting.

Similarly, a smooth sliding motion is usually over quickly, but its frequentative form, slithering, describes the constant movement of a snake as it twists its way from A to B.  

Now look at the following paragraph. The words highlighted are all original stems for frequentative verbs. First, look at the words and deduce their meanings from the context.

It was the usual chaos of dinner time in the Williams household. Two of the children were playing noisily in the garden, in the rain. They were pretending not to hear their mother's attempts to get them indoors. The smallest child, baby George, was trapped, however. He was snug in his high chair, messily eating toast with lemon curd, most of which was spilling down his bib. Toast crumbs were dispersed all over the dining room as if there had been a minor volcanic eruption. The two elder children finally came in. Poppy's hair was like a bird's nest and Eddie had mud from the garden all over his knees. "George has got crumbs on top of his head, " Poppy said in a matter-of-fact tone. At that moment, George decided to let all the food run out of his mouth and down his chin. "All the food is dripping out of George's gob," Eddie exclaimed delightedly. "Don't say gob, say mouth," said his exasperated mother. "Where do they hear words like that?" she asked her husband, who was trying to look innocent. Eddie sucked on his juice noisily and then spilt half of the drink over the table. "Give me strength," his mum said, dabbing at the pool of liquid with a cloth, as she observed the carnage all around her.  


The frequentatives of the verbs in bold are in the box below. All are regular verbs. Put them into the sentences.

  • crumble
  • curdle
  • dabble
  • dribble
  • gobble


  • muddle
  • nestle
  • snuggle
  • suckle
  • topple


1.    Although a teacher by trade, Kate has been known to _____questionmark_____ in romantic poetry.

2.    The drunken singer lost his balance and slowly _____questionmark_____ off the stage.

3.    After receiving conflicting directions from a number of passers-by, Simona felt hopelessly _____questionmark_____ and didn't know which way to turn: she was totally lost.

4.    Percy _____questionmark_____ up the rest of his sandwich and rushed off to catch the train.

5.    One of the characteristics of mammals is that they _____questionmark_____ their young.

6.    There is no greater sight for a footballer than seeing the ball _____questionmark_____ in the corner of the net.

7.    Life isn't fair and there's nothing you can do about it: that's the way the cookie _____questionmark_____.

8.    The scream was so terrifying that it could have _____questionmark_____ Holmes's blood.

9.    Maradona _____questionmark_____ past four defenders and scored a wonderful goal.

10.  All the penguins were _____questionmark_____ up to each other for warmth.  



curdsCurds  As can be seen, some of the meanings of the frequentative forms have stayed close to the meanings of their source word, such as crumble, meaning "to break into crumbs"  and gobble, meaning "to stuff food rapidly into your gob (mouth) and swallow it quickly". 

Others, however, have evolved and adapted new meanings. 

Muddle, for instance, means "to be confused", and has developed from mud, or "sticky, wet dirt". Still others have developed figurative meanings, for example dabble, curdle and dribble. The verb dab means "to lightly press with a cloth", but its frequentative, dabble, originally meaning "to dip into water", has come to acquire the figurative meaning of dip into, i.e. "to do casually or superficially".

Similarly, curdle literally means to turn into curd, which is the thick substance that forms when milk turns sour (above left). The figurative use of curdle, when collocated with blood, means "inspiring terror", and the horror genre is full of blood-curdling screams.

Dribble means "let a liquid fall in a thin stream," and is often used in relation to babies' eating habits. In sport, though, dribble has taken on the meaning of "use many skilful touches to take the ball past opponents". It is in this figurative sense, that dribble has become an international word (driblar, Portuguese; дриблирам, Bulgarian; dribblare, Italian; ドリブル (pron: doriburu), Japanese, amongst many others).  

The next activity is a quiz. The parent words are explained (when necessary). What do the frequentative forms of the original words mean?

1. Bobble is the frequentative of bob "to move üp and down with a short, quick motion". But where might you find a bobble? a) on a hat  b) on a car  c) on a building  d) on a lake questionmark 

2. If we crack something it breaks with a sharp sound, usually without separation of parts. Crackling is a longer, repeated sound. Three of these things may crackle. Which one wouldn't? a) wood on a fire  b) a microphone  c) a wet sponge  d) breakfast cereal after the milk is added questionmark 

3. If you are dazed, you are stunned or confused. If you are dazzled, you may be impressed, but you could also be surprised and overpowered. What would cause this effect? a) a spicy dish  b) a bright light c) a loud noise  d) a strong smell questionmark 

4. If you flick something, you strike it quickly, often with an index finger, but what could flicker? a) a candle in the wind b) a hungry fish  c) a jumping flea d) an angry mosquito questionmark 

5. If you jig, you dance up and down, but what happens if you jiggled your camera? a) you would move it jerkily  b) you would get a perfect shot  c) you would drop it d) you would make it flash questionmark 

6. If you jog, you run, but it also means "to give a little push". What is someone most likely to joggle? a) your heart  b) your hair  c) your stomach d) your elbow questionmark 

7. All of the words below exist, but which of them is the frequentative from nose, meaning "to burrow with or rub your nose against something"? a) nosher  b) nozzle  c) nosier  d) nuzzle questionmark 

8. Prick is "to pierce or puncture", and your skin can have a prickling sensation when sweat glands are blocked causing an itchy rash to form. What do we call this rash? a) prickly skin  b) prickly heat  c) prickly pear d) prickly spots questionmark 

9. If you scuff your shoe, you scrape it and roughen its surface, but what is a scuffle? a) a short, unruly fight  b) a wallpaper scraper c) a sharp stone  d)a nail file questionmark 

10. When we tramp, we walk heavily. A tramp is a person who travels from place to place, looking for work or begging. What does the verb trample mean? a) travel without a valid ticket  b) hitch-hike  c) jump up and down  d) tread on and crush questionmark


Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita)


11. If a small bird chirps, it tweets. If it makes a lot of these high-pitched sounds it twitters. Listen to a chiffchaff twitteringThe social networking site, Twitter, involves all of the below options, but what does twitter actually mean? a) chat quickly and informally  b) make a fool of yourself  c) interrupt constantly  d) embarrass people questionmark 

12. If you wade, you walk through water. Which animal waddles on the land? a) a rhinoceros  b) a giraffe  c) a duck  d) a fox questionmark 

13. Waver is the frequentative of wave. What does it mean? a) surf  b) show indecision  c) be very energetic  d) cover in liquid questionmark 

14. If you wrest something from someone, you pull it from their grasp. What is wrestling? a) boxing  b) hammering c) armed robbery  d) fighting by holding and pushing questionmark 

256px-Hufflepuff_HatA bobble hat (see number 1) 

As you can see, frequentatives are, in fact, very frequently encountered! That's enough burbling, twittering, chattering and twiddle-twaddle. I hope you weren't muddled by my dabbling in frequentatives!    



Knick knacks:  By Francisco Anzola (Knick knacks) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons See-saw:  By Tiia Monto (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Clackers: By Santishek (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Mish-mash: By Ikonact (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Chiffchaff: By Ken Billington (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Chiffchaff twittering: By Dan Stowell [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Bobble hat: By anneheathen (Flickr: Hufflepuff Hat) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons