I was watching Jerry Seinfeld’s new Netflix documentary last week titled, “23 Hours to Kill”, which was pretty funny, and I do recommend it if you are looking to watch a comedy special featuring a native English speaker doing a comedy routine. The particular reason why this particular comedy hour stood out to me was due to Jerry’s focus on a peculiar aspect of the English language and how it was even strange to him even as a native speaker and whose English vocabulary is varied and mature. He was drawn to the fact that in the English language, we sometimes have this tendency to repeat certain words again or back to back and it can still make sense.
While he did not give this tendency a name, I am going to refer to it as what I like to call the “Double the Word” phenomenon. In my opinion, it is a phenomenon because it does not happen that often and if you can spot it, you can understand it easily but it tends to happen rarely and when it does, the speaker is unlikely to repeat it or even explain it to you. They may not understand why they doubled the same words or even know the meaning behind why they said it.
The phenomenon of the ‘double word’ or being back to back is not that complicated. It only takes an example or two for you to get the deeper meaning underlying the expression. I also think you will be able to use them after reading these examples. Hopefully, you will be able to take this knowledge gained to expand your English vocabulary and to explain the ‘double word phenomenon’ to your friends and family. A good skill to develop with English is to become acquainted with our various phrases expressions that you won’t find in your average textbook.
- “It is what it is.” This phrase means that sometimes, you can’t change things or people to be what you want and that the situation will not change so it’s not worth fighting it. You have to pick your battles but sometimes it’s best to leave things as is. An example of this ‘double word phenomenon’ would be: “Jamie does not want to change jobs at the moment because of the economy; it is what it is.”
- “Business is business.” This phrase is a bit neutral in its meaning in that business could be good or it could be bad, but it goes on as usual and remains uninterrupted or in danger of not going on. The meaning behind its positive or negative significance really depends upon the speaker’s tone and body expressions so it’s something to be on the look-out for. “We are making do with what we have in the store: business is business.”
- “Rules are rules.” Rules are not meant to be broken and this phrase makes it clear. Usually, an authority figure of some sort would say this to you to say there are no shortcuts or no easy ways out and laws or rules have to be obeyed. This kind of phrase does not lend it to leniency and means that you have the follow the rules whatever they may be. “There is no diving or jumping into the pool. Rules are rules.”
- “A deal’s a deal.” In the English-speaking business world, business deals after being finalized are final hence the phrase of “a deal’s a deal.” You cannot back out of a deal after it has been signed and it is a bad cultural practice to renege on your commitments after giving your signature to the paper. If you back out of a deal or want to re-negotiate, you have to make sure that is a possibility before signing the deal. If “a deal’s a deal”, it means you cannot go back on it and it has no room for further negotiations or changes. “You had agreed on the terms and conditions a week ago and now you want to back out? Sorry, but a deal’s a deal.”
- “What’s what.” When a person usually a colleague or a friend want to show or explain something to you. They want to show you what something is, how it works, what its’ function is, and why it’s important. When somebody wants to show you “what’s what”, they want to explain it to you so you can understand how it works and even let you figure it out while they watch. This phrase is especially true of machinery of any kind which takes a skilled person to operate it. “Jack took me to Tesla headquarters to show me what’s what regarding the new car model designed to be emissions-free.”
- “Who’s who.” This phrase indicates that you or someone you know is indicating that they want to show you who is really important, famous, or worth getting to know. Regardless of which career field or hobby they mastered, they are the ‘who’s who’ of their profession or craft. You might see this double word phenomenon in a Hollywood magazine to show you who are the famous or important people at an awards show. While not used often, it is an interesting ‘double word’ usage that has a deeper meaning. “The Entertainment Tonight hosts were scouring the red carpet at the Oscars to figure out who’s who for the award ceremony later.”
- “Whatever happens, happens.” Sometimes in life, you have to let the unknown play out and not try to control the outcome. You have to leave things up to chance or fate and not try to control it. The double the word phenomenon of “whatever happens, happens” means letting things fall as they might and rolling with what life throws at you. If you are in Las Vegas, for example, you could let down your hair a little and enjoy a party or two because in Vegas, whatever happens, happens. “John knew that Las Vegas was a good trip for his friends’ birthday because whatever happens, happens and it stays there after they leave.”
- “Whoever does it, does it.” You are very hands off and laid back when you say this particular phrase. You want to express your desire for the responsibility to lie with someone else and for someone else to also take the lead. You express your preference for the work to be done already and for the person to step up and do it already. “Tina did not have a preference for who starts the group’s presentation and stated, whoever does it, does it.”
- “And that’s that.” Conclusions or endings can be very subtle, or they can be very sudden. When “And that’s that” comes along, the ending happens very quickly to a story or an event and it is over quicker than you thought it had started. You want to leave no impression behind of any ambiguity after recalling what happened and to indicate that there is no debate to make because the ending was quite clear. There are different ways this double word can be used but this example could be one to use: “Frodo threw the ring into Mordor, Sauron and his minions were destroyed, and they lived happily ever after…And that’s that.”
- “Totally totaled.” This phrase may not be an exact double word, but I wanted to include it because it is close enough and includes two similar words that have the same meaning. “Totally totaled” means that something has been destroyed beyond repair or there is no way of fixing it at all. It may not be a bad thing especially if it was your intent to destroy the thing, but it often refers to a car or other kind of vehicle that was damaged beyond repair. “James was anguished when he realized that his beloved car was totally totaled in the accident that happened last night.”
The double the word phenomenon may not be that common in the English language, but these phrases can help you improve your proficiency. You will notice the subtle meanings behind idioms such as these and you will be able to use them in a number of situations, sometimes funny and sometimes serious. Like in most other languages, you can find ways to use the same words back to back and it would still make logical sense to the native speaker.
Part of being an advanced learner of English is recognizing these subtle yet important meanings behind seemingly simple words. The added word that is back to back makes it more subtle in terms of its overall meaning and it’s good to be able to know and understand these deeper meanings behind these seemingly innocuous double word expressions.
Also, if you get a chance, try and look up Jerry Seinfeld’s other comedy specials or YouTube comedy clips. He does other skits that focus on the idiosyncrasies of the English language and is able to explain these weird oddities to both native speakers and those learning the language as their 2nd or 3rd languages.