Unusual pairs

You know plenty of words that have double letters in them such as tt and ee. How many words do you know that have these pairs of letters in them?

aa     ii     hh     kk      uu      vv     ww  

Think about that question. There might be some English words in your list. There could be some non-English words which we use.

If you live in Australia or New Zealand, you think straight away of yakka. It is sometimes spelt yacker, yakker or yaker, and comes from an Aboriginal word. It means work and often appears in the phrase ‘hard yakka’. And everyone knows aardvark, the name of the mammal that lives in southern Africa. It comes from words meaning ‘earth-pig’. However, the question now arises: are these English words?

Aardvark was borrowed about 200 years ago from Afrikaans, the Dutch-based language of some of the white settlers in South Africa. Yakka was borrowed by white settlers from an Australian Aboriginal language over 100 years ago. As far as the English language is concerned, they are young very words. Work has a history of over 1,500 years. Earth appeared in written documents over 1,000 years ago, in its earlier form eorđe, eorthe. Pig has been around for over 800 years.

Right, you've seen just a few samples. Before you continue, have a good think, compare notes with someone, do a bit of research... and see what other words you can find. Then scroll down.






Here are a few other words with unusual pairs of letters. Some of them are not really ‘English’ but have been borrowed and are in general use. Some have several different forms — your dictionary might show them as a single word, two words joined by a hyphen, or two separate words. You can see from the notes how words came into English at different times, related to exploration and the development of science — when something ‘new’ is discovered, we need a word for it!

A market or area of small stalls. The word came into English in the 16th century from Persian.

A village of huts in southern Africa. The Afrikaans word came into English in the 18th century. It originates from Portuguese curral, pen, which also gave rise to corral in North America.

A Muslim form of greeting, comprising a word and a bow. From Arabic salam, peace. Related to Hebrew shalom, peace. It has been used in English for about 400 years.

An area of an enemy beach that has been captured, ready for the landing of military forces. This is a 20th century word, adapted from bridgehead, a fortified area.

Some dictionaries have fish-hook. A hook used on a line when angling for fish. It first appeared in print over 600 years ago as fisch-hook.

To travel by getting free rides in passing vehicles. It first appeared in print less than 100 years ago.

Some dictionaries have rough-house. Rough behaviour in games, fighting, etc. It was coined late in the 19th century.

To hold back, to refuse to give. It appeared in print over 800 years ago as wiđhalt, withhalt.

This is the plural of genius when that word refers to a person’s guiding spirit or angel. From ancient Roman mythology. A Latin word which appeared in English books about 400 years ago. Because of its appearance and spelling, the singular version genius became genie. We now use genius to denote a very clever person, and genie for a spirit or angel.

The plural of radius, a straight line from the centre of a circle to any point on its circumference; half of the diameter of the circle. A Latin word adopted about 400 years ago.

A knife with a blade which is hinged to fold back into the handle. Jack in many phrases seems to have come from the use of the French Jacques to denote an ordinary man. A jack-knife was a working man’s knife in the United States in the early 18th century.

Some dictionaries have knick-knack or nick-nack. A small or cheap ornament. It came into English in the 17th century, but originally meant a trick or a subterfuge.

Also spelt pucka. Correctly or properly done; genuine. A Hindu word which came into English in the 17th century.

In Australia, a type of small wallaby, now rare. An Aboriginal word which first appeared in print in the middle of the 19th century.

trekker, trekking
From trek, a long or difficult journey. An Afrikaans word which came into English from South Africa in the middle of the 19th century.

In science, a continuous series. Adopted into English in the 17th century. A Latin word.

A space in which there is no matter. A Latin word which was adopted into English for scientific purposes in the 16th century.

In some dictionaries, muu-muu. A loose, brightly coloured dress. A Hawaiian word that has been used in English for less than 100 years.

A slang abbreviation of dividend first used in the 19th century.

In Australia, a cotton shirt with long sleeves and a polo neck. Mainly in Britain, a menial female servant. Mainly in the USA, a man's t-shirt. The origin of this 20th century word is not known.

Mainly in Britain, a slang word for a labourer on a building site. In Australia, a labourer on roads, railways, etc. Adapted from navigator in the 19th century.

Some dictionaries have bow-wow. An infant or childish word for a dog, or the bark of a dog. It was first used in print, meaning the sound of a barking dog, about 400 years ago.

A talk or conference. Adopted into English in the 17th century from a North American Indian word.

In some dictionaries, slow worm. A type of legless lizard, also called a blindworm. It appeared in writing over 1,000 years ago as slawerm.

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