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).

LIKE-like, 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.


  1. old gobbo -  October 21, 2013 - 3:55 am

    Two or three points, in reaction to what is an interesting and useful discussion. I regret that retirement poverty means I have not consulted the original paper, and I apologize for any misunderstandings

    a) I am not sure I understand the usefulness of both “morphosyntactic” and “syntactic”, although certainly this usage demands a multi-level response to the combination of repetitiveness and stress in the speech act (implicit of course in written usage). And I share the distaste of one or two others for ‘reduplication’

    b) ‘act as intensifiers’ – intensificatory repetition has been around for a long time (e.g. long, long way), and is not usually contrastive: I think the focus in the kind of usage dealt with here is indeed more to do with the contrastive aspect noted in your final paragraph of comment (and as one comment noted, often referring to a secondary context).

    c) However, while it can be an amusing usage (‘not up up’ captures the bafflement of being out of bed but not ready to deal with things), it is not always or even often a “better way”, but a lazy short-cut for e.g. a real (or real-life) friend, the vegetable salad. The ‘not LIVING-TOGETHER living together’ example works well, again because it is a humorous way of dealing with a (possibly) slightly taboo subject. (Looking at some of the examples in the Kevin Russell corpus confirms this for me: for instance the Brad-Vivian-Bernard Aggressive-Aggressive is funny, but the Felicity-Julie one is not and ‘it’s just aggressive’ would be a better response; and I appreciate Alison’s reaction to a later instance: ‘You are seriously challenged in the fantasy department’).

  2. Angalyssa -  October 16, 2013 - 9:43 am

    Now We Know Where You’re Mind’s Really At Huh? :) Lolz

  3. john -  October 15, 2013 - 7:07 am

    I thought I was looking at the female reproductive tract in tthe picture was actually two bunnies?

  4. Britt -  October 11, 2013 - 5:07 pm

    Oh cray-cray, how I hate thee. =P

  5. desami rosales -  October 10, 2013 - 7:28 pm

    I really enjoy reading the comments from all over the world. It’s like a MAJOR- major venue of learning such words and knowledge.

  6. I felt an urge to post this -  October 10, 2013 - 5:08 pm

    My name is Kay-Kay,
    I am cray cray,
    And that’s okay-kay.

  7. Chato -  October 10, 2013 - 4:57 pm

    In the Caribbean we are noted for emphasis by reduplication in just about The sun here is not just hot, but hot-hot, and things are not just sweet, but sweet-sweet, and good good, and bad-bad, and wet wet, and he’s ugly-ugly, or fat fat. Such reduplication is normal-normal in our neck of the woods or sea.

  8. Marli -  October 10, 2013 - 4:34 am

    @Hebeestie Wallopman, somewhere at the start of the comment section:

    I find your “I’m a reader”-attitude a little pretentious. However, since you’re “a reader”, I would assume that you know about flowing writing in lit. Sometimes sentences simply sound better when using the same words or letters.

    In this case, I used many S-es in the last sentence, and ‘rhymed’ with “better” and “letter”. Comes natural ;) Reduplication is a way to emphasize a single word, when it’s the perfect word in the case. If you like-like someone, to me it doesn’t mean that you love him or are extremely fond of her, you just mean to emphasize that you honestly mean the word ‘like’.

  9. Sophia -  October 10, 2013 - 3:41 am

    I don’t just like this site, I LIKE-like it!! And my husband says I’m not just weird, I’m WEIRD-weird!!

  10. tryanmax -  October 9, 2013 - 8:31 pm

    In response to everyone who declares reduplication to be lazy or childish speech, I must emphatically disagree. When used in the LIKE-like manner, it is actually meant to convey an idea for which the English language is lacking. Anyone who’s been to a few Bible studies can tell you that Greek is much better for expressing a variety of levels and forms of affection (as in agape). And who hasn’t been regaled with the trivium that Eskimos have a hundred words for snow (regardless whether it’s true)? But no language can be so nuanced in every area, thus something must be improvised.

    As for it’s use in speaking to children, I’m sorry to disillusion some folks, but diminutive speech that is reserved for and directed at infants and toddlers is a universal and timeless social phenomenon. It’s not going anywhere soon. Best to just cope with it; it’ll do wonders for your blood pressure. Who knows? maybe it serves some vital social function for our species and isn’t just cutesy wootsy.

  11. YUP -  October 9, 2013 - 6:04 pm

    A. Eller, I like your style, I mean, your STYLE-style. That style. I agree, this is a bunch of mumbo jumbo.

    Obviously everyone who commented here cares enough to care, but is there anyone who CARES-cares? I don’t CARE-care.

    I try to listen to things, but I don’t always LISTEN-listen. The funny thing about this is just plain listening (as opposed to LISTENING-listening) and not hearing are two different things. Does that mean you can HEAR-hear?

    What about HERE-here in a courtroom? HEAR-here, but don’t HEAR-there.

    Krusty the Clown always says, “Hey, hey kids…”

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