One of the admittedly few moments of pleasure I used to get from watching an episode of the mystifyingly long-running soap, Eastenders, was when some of the characters decided to go for a meal at the local Indian restaurant, delightfully called the Argee-Bhajee. The second part of the name of the gaff was a reference to that staple of British Indian restaurants, the bhajee. Inevitably, as was the way with this programme, the characters would have an argument, illustrating the meaning of this rather curious expression in its totality – to have a heated argument or quarrel.
What we have here is something that the grammarians call a reduplication where the second word rhymes with and emphasises the first. Often a characteristic of reduplication is that the second word is a made up or fictional word, selected for alliterative or rhyming purposes.
As you might expect, if you had given the matter a bit of thought, the argie component of the expression owes its origin to the verb, argue, which has been with us since Middle English and came from the Latin argutari, to prattle, via the Old French verb, arguer. One of the joys of English is that it is full of regional variants. Our friends from north of Hadrian’s wall have always liked to take liberties with the mother tongue and argle was a Scottish variant of the verb to argue. This variant was joined by a piece of nonsense, bargle, which has the virtue of rhyming with and having the same number of syllables as argle. There is no record of the word bargle existing other than in association with its soul mate, argle.
One of the first appearances in print of the Scottish variant of the phrase is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped which was published in 1886. There we have “last night ye haggled and argle-bargled like an apple wife”. Apple wives sold apples, surprisingly enough, and had a reputation for the ripeness of their language, a characteristic which may not have been shared by their wares. The English variant appeared ten years later in JM Barrie’s Margaret Ogilvy. “Ten minutes at the least did she stand at the door argy-bargying with that man”.
Barrie, of course, was born in Scotland but spent most of his time south of the border. Is it too fanciful to think that he brought the phrase down with him and then removed the harsh, guttural l and replaced it with the softer I to appease the more sensitive English ears? I don’t think so, although I won’t get into an argle-bargle with anyone who takes the contrary view. I have to say I prefer the Scottish variant.
One of my favourite examples of reduplication is arsy-versy. This is one of the many phrases that litter the English language, describing a disturbed state of affairs. The sense is that something is arse about face or, to put it more politely, backwards. It dates back to at least the 16th century and first appeared in print in Richard Taverner’s Proverbes or adages with newe addicions, gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus, published in 1539. “Ye set the cart before the horse – cleane contrarily and arsy-versy as they say”. The addition of as they say leads me to suspect that it was used in everyday speech much earlier than the first written example.