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The meaning and origin of the expression: Higgledy-piggledy


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Higgledy-piggledy'?

Chaotic and disorderly; in jumbled confusion.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Higgledy-piggledy'?

Reduplicated phrases are those that use the partial repetition of a word, often a nonsense word, for verbal effect. 'Higgledy-piggledy' is one of a number of such phrases that refer to chaos and disorder. Other examples are 'helter-skelter', 'harum-scarum', pell-mell', 'raggle-taggle', hobson-jobson' and 'hurly-burly'. Why reduplication, especially of words beginning with 'h', suggests jumble and disorder isn't clear.

Most reduplicated terms involve the rhyming of words of two syllables - hanky-panky, namby-pamby, mumbo-jumbo and so on. 'Higgledy-piggledy' is an unusual example that uses three-syllable words. In fact, it's a little more unusual still - it's an example of a metrical form called a 'double dactyl'. A dactyl is a three-syllable word with the stress on the first syllable and, not surprisingly, a double dactyl is a word made from two dactyls put together. Examples of these are 'inconsequentially' and 'idiosyncrasy'. 'Higgledy-piggledy' is considered such a good example of a double dactyl that it has given its name to a form of structured, some might say tortured, poetic verse that uses double dactyls. I'll spare you a reprint of one of those here; they aren't at the apex of the poet's art.

The first time that 'higgledy-piggledy' appears in print is in the first edition of John Florio's English/Italian dictionary A Worlde of Wordes, 1598:

Alla rinfusa: Snatchingly, higledi-pigledie, shiftingly.

In the same book Florio translates the Italian word Allarappa as:

Pelmell, helterskelter, higledi-pigledie, confusedly.

The phrase 'Higgledy-piggledy' - meaning and origin.The jury is out as to whether the expression derives as a reference to pigs, but there's certainly a pretty good case to be made for a porcine origin.

The variant form of the phrase, 'higly-pigly', although not found in print until 1654, seems to suggest that 17th century authors linked the phrase to pigs. If anything epitomises 'higgledy-piggledy' it's a herd of pigs.

If I said I could actually prove that the person who coined 'higgledy-piggledy' had pigs in mind I would be telling porkies, but it seems highly likely.

See other reduplicated phrases.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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