Like vs. Like-Like: A Look at Reduplication in English

You can like someone, and then you can LIKE-like someone. These two things, though they both involve liking, have different meanings. The first one could mean that you like a person as a friend or you have a crush on that person, depending on the context. However, the second type of like—the LIKE-like—unambiguously implies that you have a crush. What’s happening here when like is repeated? Does this happen with other words in English?

In linguistic terms, this kind of repetition is called reduplication. Reduplication is when a word, an element of a word, or a phrase is repeated. This can often result in change of meaning or tone. It happens in many languages, not just English, and there are many types of reduplication. There’s rhyming reduplication (razzle-dazzle, hoity-toity), exact reduplication (bye-bye, din-din), ablaut reduplication (ding-dong, zig-zag), and shm-reduplication (baby-shmaby, fancy-schmancy).

LIKElike, as seen above, is an example of contrastive focus reduplication (sometimes also called lexical cloning or the double construction). In a 2004 paper by Jila Ghomeshi, Ray Jackendoff, Nicole Rosen, and Kevin Russell called “Contrastive Focus Reduplication in English (The Salad-Salad Paper),” they explore this specific type of reduplication, offering the following examples:

I’ll make the tuna salad, and you make the SALAD-salad.
I’m up, I’m just not UP-up.
My car isn’t MINE-mine; it’s my parents’.
Oh, we’re not LIVING-TOGETHER-living-together.

The UP-up example has since been immortalized in a Zits comic strip (showcased in this 2007 Language Log post). In more recent years, social network sites have taken off, and now a new example exists. “Are you FRIENDS-friends or Facebook friends?” Here, the speaker is contrasting the idea of friends in real life versus friends online, just as in the other examples, the speaker is contrasting one thing with another somehow more real or intense version of the same thing. For more examples, check out Kevin Russell’s corpus of examples here, complete with a handy index.

In the case of contrastive focus reduplication, what exactly is happening? As Ghomeshi et al. noted in their paper, this type of reduplication is not just confined to phonological features; it’s “a combination of phonological, morphosyntactic, syntactic, and lexical factors.” Contrastive focus reduplication, then, is quite a flexible and robust discourse tool. Given that it can stretch to fit all sorts of contexts, what exactly does it do? In the examples above, the reduplicated words or phrases act as intensifiers—they are describing things that are somehow more real, true, intense, or strong. Liking is a feeling, and LIKE-liking is a more intense kind of feeling. Being up means being awake, but being UP-up means you’re out of bed and ready to start the day.

Why opt for reduplication over more straightforward communication? Maybe to show humor? To be cute? Maybe because there’s simply no better way to present an intensified version of the thing being contrasted. The beauty of contrastive focus reduplication is that there’s a comparison baked into the structure of the sentence. It gives a cue to listeners to start contrasting items in their minds, which is something that might have been completely glossed over had the structure of the two items not echoed each other. Whatever the reason people use contrastive focus reduplication, it seems to have what the Salad-Salad paper refers to as a “contagious quality”; once you’re exposed, there’s no going back.

Have you encountered any examples of contrastive focus reduplication recently? Let us know in the comments.