To understand this anomaly, we’ll need to review a few grammar points. Bear with me and you’ll come to a sparkling revelation by the end of the post.
An adjective is a word or phrase that describes a noun, e.g., small, red, or awesome. When using multiple adjectives in a sentence, there are two orders: coordinate and cumulative adjectives.
Coordinate adjectives are in the same category and require a comma between each one:
- My dog is brown, black, and white. (color)
- This is a Spanish, English, and French dictionary. (purpose)
- He’s intelligent, handsome, funny, and a great dancer! (opinion)
Cumulative adjectives come from various categories and don’t require commas, but must be ‘stacked’ in a specific order:
- This is a cute little blue bag.
- We rode two gorgeous big black Arabian horses.
- I have a tiny 10-week-old brown beagle puppy.
Reduplication is when a word or part of a word is repeated and sometimes modified to make a longer term, like hush-hush or boogie-woogie. There are two types of reduplicates: exact and rhyming.
- Exact: goody-goody, choo-choo, bye-bye, wee-wee, yum-yum, aye-aye, boo-boo, so-so, tut-tut, no-no, night-night, poo-poo, yada-yada, ta-ta
- Rhyming: okey-dokey, itsy-bitsy, arty-farty, razzle-dazzle, fancy-schmancy, walkie-talkie, raggle-taggle, super-duper, boo-hoo
Interestingly, there are a large number of ‘h’ words in the rhyming group: hocus-pocus, hanky-panky, hokey-pokey, hoity-toity, higglety-pigglety, harem-scarem, helter-skelter, holy-moly, honey-bunny, hum-drum, Handy Andy, Humpty Dumpty, and Henny Penny.
Ablaut is a term introduced by the 19th-century German linguist, Jacob Grimm, the elder of the Brothers Grimm duo. Ablaut refers to a vowel change which, in reduplicates, often follows a particular vowel pattern, such as zigzag or sing-song. If there are two words, the first vowel is I and the second is usually either A or O. If there are three words then the order is often I, A, O.
Two-Word: flim-flam, knick-knack, mingle-mangle, dilly-dally, pitter-patter, chit-chat, Tic Tac, wishy-washy, criss-cross, flip-flop, tick-tock, ping pong, clippity-cloppity, bibbity-bobbity, King Kong
Three-Word: bing-bang-bong, ding-dang-dong, bish-bash-bosh, splish-splash-splosh, clink-clank-clunk
We have our Germanic/Old English heritage to thank for this familiar vowel pattern. A similar vowel shift occurs with verb conjugations like drink, drank, drunk (trinken, tranken, getrunken) or sing, sang, sung (singen, sang, gesungen).
The Anomaly of The Big Bad Wolf
If we understand that cumulative adjectives are stacked in a specific order, a sentence with the words bad (opinion), big (size), and wolf (noun) should read, “bad big wolf.” This logic holds true for “cute little kittens,” “scary old house,” or “nice long drive.” So, why are the two adjectives in “big bad wolf” flipped? The writer, Mark Forsyth, explains this phenomenon in his title, The Elements of Eloquence:
“The reason “big bad wolf” is reversed is that the phrase skips the stacked-order rule to follow the ablaut reduplicative I-A scheme where big-bad acts like zig-zag!”
It would be easy to assume this anomalous ordering is the way it’s always been said, until you look at early versions of The Three Little Pigs. In Jacob’s English Fairy Tales (1890), the story includes “not by the hair of my chiny-chin-chin” and lots of huffing and puffing, but not the phrase “big bad wolf.” In the much older Grimm’s Fairy Tales version, you’ll find the piggy threesomes’ “Tra-la-la!” refrain, as well as the agreeably-ordered “wicked black wolf,” but no “big bad wolf.” So, when did this happen?
In 1933, the song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” was featured in Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony rendition of The Three Little Pigs. The theme song was a Depression-era hit and continues to be one of Disney’s most well-known songs. So successful was the animation, the studio spun several sequels. The theme song was repeated in The Big Bad Wolf with Little Red Riding Hood, and Li’l Bad Wolf, the son of Big Bad Wolf. Unsurprisingly, the wolf pup inherited his father’s ablaut reduplication, further cementing the adjectival reversal in our collective memories.
So, now you know! (I was going to say “That’s all folks!” but remembered that’s a different pig altogether.)
You might also be interested to learn about the most common adjectives, test your own knowledge of stacked adjectives, or how to begin teaching stacked adjectives to your youngest ESL students! Read more on the Kinney Brothers Publishing blog!
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