Words & Stuff

d: Everything Higgledy-Piggledy

(26 January 1997)

I've long had a fondness for certain poetic forms oft-derided as doggerel. One of my favorite such forms is the Double Dactyl, also known as the Higgledy Piggledy.

A dactyl is a poetic foot which consists of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. Words like "turpitude," "menopause," and "aspirin" are dactylic -- their stress pattern goes DA-da-da.

A Double Dactyl is a poem consisting of two four-line stanzas. Most of the lines, as you might guess, consist of two dactylic feet. There are certain other structural requirements as well.

The first line, for instance, is usually a double-dactylic nonsense phrase. "Higgledy-piggledy" is the most common beginning. (It took me years to discover that that's pronounced "HIG-ul-dee PIG-ul-dee," rather than "HIG-leh-dee PIG-leh-dee." Not that it matters.)

The second line is usually the name of a person, the subject of the poem. As a result, the double dactyl is one of the few poetic forms whose topics are limited by the stress patterns of a subject's name.

The third line can be any old pair of dactyls, usually beginning to describe or discuss the subject given in the second line. The fourth line is truncated, missing the last two syllables of the second dactyl -- it goes "DA-da-da-DA" instead of "DA-da-da DA-da-da."

The fifth and seventh lines are unrestricted other than by meter, like the third line. The sixth line should ideally be a single six-syllable double-dactylic word, usually an adverb or adjective. And finally, the eighth line is truncated like the fourth line, and rhymes with the fourth line. (No other lines need to rhyme.)

For example, here's a Double Dactyl about a pessimistic character on a certain television series:

Boom-chucka Boom-chucka
Susan Ivanova
Second banana on
Babylon 5

Known for her prophecies
Eschatological:
"No one gets out of this
Station alive!"

—Jim Moskowitz

You might think the single six-syllable word would be the hard part, but once you get into the rhythm it comes fairly naturally; besides, you can cheat a little by constructing new words:

Hiffalump-heffalump,
Meteorologists
Issue their forecasts on
Each evening's news.

Much as they'd like to give
Delphic-oracular
Statements, don't bet on the
Weather; you'll lose.

—JEH

Topics often suggest themselves if you start with a double-dactylic name. This next item refers to the original (surprisingly moralistic) version of the story in question, not the Disney movie loosely based on it:

Higgledy-Piggledy
Hans Christian Andersen
Wrote of a mermaid who
Swam up on shore.

There she became somewhat
Less than amphibious;
Drowned in the sea-foam 'mid
Morals galore.

—JEH

And finally, here's one for the computer programmers in the audience:

/*
* Higgledy Piggledy,
* Ritchie and Kernighan
* Wrote the definitive
* Book about C.

* If I were grading it,
* Alphanumerically,
* I'd rate the language at
* Least a high B.
*/

—JEH

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Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>