Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 23: Flip-Flop Fever

In this special edition, Grammar Grater explores the word "flip-flop" as part of Minnesota Public Radio's program In The Loop. This program was taped before In The Loop's live studio audience.

Flip-flop is in a family of words that are created by reduplication: that is, the repetition of the same or similar sound. Other words in this family include knick-knack, hodge-podge, shilly-shally and hoity-toity. Like flip-flop, these words are often hyphenated.

Flip-flop has a number of meanings. For example it's used in the world of electronics:
In digital circuits, a flip-flop is a kind of bistable multivibrator, an electronic circuit that is capable of serving as one bit of memory.
A flip-flop is also a kind of bicycle wheel hub. It's a handspring in gymnastics. And of course it is used in the world of footwear: flip-flops are a type of sandal with a thin strip of material that passes between the big and second toes. That strip of material has become synecdoche for the sandals themselves, earning flip-flops their other name: thongs.

And then there's the political definition for flip-flop—that is, when a political person has a sudden real or apparent change of policy or opinion. In the political sense, flip-flop can be used as both a noun and a verb:
There was a flip-flop on recent legislation.
Opposition accused the candidate of flip-flopping.
Some said the candidate flip-flopped on key issues.
The candidate denied being a flip-flopper.
The word flip-flop earned a great deal of attention in the US presidential election of 2004. But we found citations that show the term goes at least as far back as the 1988 campaign. And the idea of a flip-flop is not confined to American politics. Other English-speaking countries use flip-flop as well.

This story excerpt is from the BBC, dated October 9, 2007:
"It was 'wall-to-wall contrition over the great on-off autumn election fiasco', says the Daily Telegraph, pointing out that Prime Minister Gordon Brown's flip-flop gives the Tories time to develop voter-friendly policies that might establish them as a credible government in waiting."
Here's a portion of a story from the CBC, dated May 18, 2001:
"The Liberals are accusing the provincial government of a flip-flop on public funding for private education. The announcement last week of a tax credit for private school tuition surprised many people."
And here's an excerpt from the Sydney Morning Herald, dated November 8, 2007:
"Following Thursday's environment election debate, Climate Institute chief executive John Connor said the debate had provided little new material to the argument, saying he was disappointed there were no new policies, fireworks or flip-flops."
The word flip-flop is clearly popular throughout the English-speaking world. Gordon Jarvie, author of the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide, has a good explanation of why that may be. Here's what he writes:
"Many of these reduplicative words involve an element of rhyme, which is what makes them memorable and ensures the contemporary colloquial popularity of this aspect of word formation. Nowadays we all seem to love a rhyme."
In sum, a word like flip-flop is fun to say and it rhymes, so it's likely to be popular for a long time.

This podcast was introduced by In The Loop's Jeff Horwich, and it contained special guest appearances by Euan Kerr, Gordon Jarvie, Michael Bayly and David Roach. Grammar Grater will return in its typical form next week.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English, The Bloomsbury Grammar Guide, Wikipedia, from the Sydney Morning Herald, the BBC and the CBC.

Music from this Episode: "Flip Flop and Fly" by Joe Turner.

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