Do you recall the 1962 song about the itsy-bitsy, teenie-weenie, yellow polka-dot bikini? The English language loves this kind of repetition. Linguists call them reduplicative compounds, but they’re also sometimes called ricochet words or vocal gestures. They’re paired words that differ either only in a vowel (tittle-tattle, tick-tock, pitter-patter, mish-mash, shilly-shally) or a consonant (hoity-toity, lovey-dovey, helter-skelter, argy-bargy, pell-mell, and the infamous nitty-gritty). There are dozens of them. Many, especially the rhyming ones, seem to start out in childhood, perhaps because children find them easy to remember.
Higgledy-piggledy — meaning confusion or disorder — is a good example of this rhyming sort. It was first recorded at the end of the fifteenth century in a number of different forms. There was a simpler version recorded at the same time, higly-pigly, which suggests the second part may be from pig, with the word evolving through the sequence pig to pigly to higly-pigly, and so to our elaborated version with the extra syllables inserted to create a jog-trotting rhythm.
Talking of rhythm, many people have pointed out that it’s a good example of a verse shape called a double dactyl (a dactyl is a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables; it’s named after the Greek word for finger, whose joints represent the three syllables). Another double dactyl is idiosyncrasy. Carolyn Dane and others told me about a poetry game that was described in a book of 1967 entitled Jiggery Pokery (yet another example) by the American poets Anthony Hecht and John Hollander. They described a verse form that’s as strait-jacketed as a limerick (whose name is a single dactyl) but even more complicated and arcane.
But why pigs? Well, they are conventionally considered the most dirty of animals, which would provide a sufficiently dismissive description of disorder — if you’re ever tempted to refer to a teenager’s room as a pigsty, you’re using the same idea. However, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests it’s more likely to have something to do with “the disorderly and utterly irregular fashion in which a herd of these animals huddle together” (Nathaniel Hawthorne used that image in his American Notebooks: “Pigs, on a march, do not subject themselves to any leader among themselves, but pass on, higgledy-piggledy, without regard to age or sex”).