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Q From Peter J Lusby: A question arose recently during a discussion here in California about the origin of the expression argy-bargy (also written argey-bargey), meaning a relatively amicable, if somewhat heated, argument. Any ideas?

A I’m not so sure the term refers to an amicable argument: in my experience (as a spectator, you will understand) argy-bargies are often not only heated arguments but also rather bad-tempered ones, amounting to a spat or minor quarrel. But then, the term is mainly a British or Commonwealth one, not that well known in the US, and easily misunderstood out of context.

Argy-bargy was a late nineteenth-century modification of a Scots phrase, which appeared early in the same century in the form argle-bargle. The first part of this older version was a modification of argue. The second parts of the two forms, bargle and bargy, never had any independent existence — they are no more than nonsense rhyming repetitions of the first elements.

An example in the old spelling from later in the century:

Last night ye haggled and argle-bargled like an apple-wife.

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886. An apple-wife was a seller of apples from a stall, the female equivalent of a costermonger (who, historically and etymologically, also sold apples, an ancient large ribbed variety called a costard). By repute apple-wives were just as argumentative and foul-tongued as their male counterparts.

An early example of the modern form, also as a verb:

Ten minutes at the least did she stand at the door argy-bargying with that man.

Margaret Ogilvy, by J M Barrie, 1896. This autobiographical novel, by an author who is most famous for his play Peter Pan, takes its title from the maiden name of his mother; it deals with his childhood memories of the death in a skating accident of his thirteen-year-old brother David in 1867.

Linguists refer to such doublets as reduplication. The second part isn’t always invented, but can be a real word if one is available that fits in meaning and form. English is fond of the trick and the language is full of such pairs. Some are conventional rhymes (super-duper, hoity-toity, namby-pamby, mumbo-jumbo) while others are pairs that modify an internal vowel (dilly-dally, shilly-shally, wishy-washy, zig-zag).

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Page created 13 Oct 2001; Last updated 25 Sep 2010