“Higgledy-piggledy” means in confusion or disorder. Synonyms: untidy, disorganized, messy, chaotic, jumbled, muddled, irregular, cluttered.

The phrase is an example of reduplication, the partial repetition of a word, often a nonsense word, for verbal effect. Other similar words that refer to chaos and disorder are: helter-skelter, harum-scarum, pell-mell, and raggle-taggle. They’re also sometimes called ricochet words or vocal gestures. The first time that “higgledy-piggledy” appeared in print is in John Florio’s English/Italian dictionary A Worlde of Wordes, 1598.

Most reduplicated terms involve the rhyming of words of two syllables: hanky-panky, namby-pamby, mumbo-jumbo and so on. Higgledy-piggledy is unusual in that it uses three-syllable words. It’s also an example of a metrical form called a ‘double dactyl,’ or two dactyls put together. 

Edward Moor, in Suffolk Words and Phrases (1823), quotes a list of “conceited rhyming words or reduplications” from the 1768 edition of John Ray’s Collection of English Words Not Generally Used, all said to mean confusion. The list has higgledy-piggledy, hurly-burly, hodge-podge, mingle-mangle, arsy-versy, kim-kam, hub-bub, crawly-mauly, and hab-nab.

Why pigs? The Oxford English Dictionary suggests it’s likely to have something to do with “the disorderly and utterly irregular fashion in which a herd of these animals huddle together.” The variant form, “higly-pigly,” though not found in print until 1664, seems to suggest that 17th century authors linked the phrase to pigs. If anything epitomizes ‘higgledy-piggledy’ it’s a herd of pigs. Or a flock of cats.

A song from the 60s was about an itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini. Such paired words differ either only in a vowel (tittle-tattle, tick-tock, pitter-patter) or a consonant (hoity-toity, lovey-dovey, helter-skelter, nitty-gritty). There are dozens of them.

Here’s part of a satirical poem by Ogden Nash about governments trying to control production by paying farmers NOT to produce:

“Higgledy piggledy, my black hen,
She lays eggs for gentlemen.
Gentlemen come every day
To count what my black hen doth lay.
If perchance she lays too many,
They fine my hen a pretty penny;
If perchance she fails to lay,
The gentlemen a bonus pay.

Abracadabra, thus we learn
The more you create, the less you earn.
The less you earn, the more you’re given,
The less you lead, the more you’re driven,
The more destroyed, the more they feed,
The more you pay, the more they need,
The more you earn, the less you keep,
And now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to take
If the tax-collector hasn’t got it before I wake.”

  One thought on “higgledy-piggledy

  1. Leanne Tsylor
    June 7, 2020 at 7:50 am

    Fascinsting –
    And you’re always thoughtfully thorough!
    Must admit to looking up “dactyl” –
    which led to more fun.
    Thank you, Lea, for your amusing,
    enlightening, and entertaining blog!
    (I’ll wiggle-waggle off now to hob-nob with
    our flock of cats.)


  2. June 7, 2020 at 9:56 am

    Ah Lea -yet another fine word exposition and I loved the poem- had quite forgotten it. Funnily enough it applies to me just as much today!


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