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Irreversible binomial

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The expression "macaroni and cheese" is an irreversible binomial. The order of the two keywords of this familiar expression cannot be reversed idiomatically.

In linguistics and stylistics, an irreversible binomial,[1] frozen binomial, binomial freeze, binomial expression, binomial pair, or nonreversible word pair[2] is a pair of words used together in fixed order as an idiomatic expression or collocation. The words have a semantic relationship usually involving the words and or or. They also belong to the same part of speech: nouns (milk and honey), adjectives (short and sweet), or verbs (do or die). The order of word elements cannot be reversed.[1]

The term "irreversible binomial" was introduced by Yakov Malkiel in 1954, though various aspects of the phenomenon had been discussed since at least 1903 under different names: a "terminological imbroglio".[3] Ernest Gowers used the name Siamese twins (i.e., conjoined twins) in the 1965 edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage. The 2015 edition reverts to the scholarly name, "irreversible binomials", as "Siamese twins" had become offensive.[4]

Many irreversible binomials are catchy due to alliteration, rhyming, or ablaut reduplication, so becoming clichés or catchphrases. Idioms like rock and roll, the birds and the bees, and collocations like mix and match, and wear and tear have particular meanings apart from or beyond those of their constituent words. Ubiquitous collocations like loud and clear and life or death are fixed expressions, making them a standard part of the vocabulary of native English speakers.

Some English words have become obsolete in general but are still found in an irreversible binomial. For example, spick is a fossil word that never appears outside the phrase spick and span.[5] Some other words, like vim in vim and vigor,[citation needed] have become rare and archaic outside the collocation.

Numerous irreversible binomials are used in legalese. Due to the use of precedent in common law, many lawyers use the same collocations found in legal documents centuries old. Many of these legal doublets contain two synonyms, often one of Old English origin and the other of Latin origin: deposes and says, ways and means.

While many irreversible binomials are literal expressions (like washer and dryer, rest and relaxation, rich and famous, savings and loan), some are entirely figurative (like come hell or high water, nip and tuck, surf and turf) or mostly so (like between a rock and a hard place, five and dime). Somewhat in between are more subtle figures of speech, synecdoches, metaphors, or hyperboles (like cat and mouse, sick and tired, barefoot and pregnant). The terms are often the targets of eggcorns, malapropisms, mondegreens, and folk etymology.

Some irreversible binomials can have minor variations without loss of understanding: time and time again is frequently shortened to time and again; a person who is tarred and feathered (verb) can be said to be covered in tar and feathers (noun).

However, in some cases small changes to wording change the meaning. The accommodating attitude of an activity's participants would be called give and take, while give or take means "approximately". Undertaking some act whether it is right or wrong excludes the insight from knowing the difference between right and wrong; each pair has a subtly differing meaning. And while five and dime is a noun phrase for a low-priced variety store, nickel and dime is a verb phrase for penny-pinching.



The words in an irreversible binomial belong to the same part of speech, have some semantic relationship, and are usually connected by and or or. They are often near-synonyms or antonyms, alliterate, or rhyme.

Examples below are split into various tables; some may belong in more than one table but are listed only once.

With opposites and antonyms



With alliteration


Also see the English section of the Reduplication article for cases like walkie-talkie, ragtag, chit-chat, hip-hop, bing-bang-boom, etc.

With rhymes and similar-sounding words


  • break and take
  • boom and zoom
  • box and cox
  • chalk and talk
  • charts and darts
  • chips and dip
  • dive and drive
  • double trouble
  • even Steven
  • fair and square
  • fender bender
  • five and dime
  • flotsam and jetsam[6]
  • handy-dandy
  • hanky-panky
  • harum-scarum
  • helter skelter
  • higgledy piggledy
  • high and dry[1][2]
  • hire and fire[1]
  • hit and split
  • hit it and quit
  • hither and thither
  • hocus pocus
  • hoity-toity
  • hot to trot
  • huff and puff[2]
  • hurly-burly
  • hustle and bustle
  • itty-bitty
  • itsy-bitsy
  • lap and gap
  • latest and greatest
  • lean, mean, fightin' machine
  • lick 'em and stick 'em
  • loud and proud
  • mean, green, fightin' machine
  • meet and greet
  • might makes right
  • motor voter
  • my way or the highway
  • namby-pamby
  • name and shame
  • name it and claim it
  • near and dear
  • never, ever
  • nitty gritty
  • odds and sods
  • onwards and upwards
  • orgy porgy
  • out and about
  • out and proud
  • pell-mell
  • pump and dump
  • rough and tough
  • run and gun
  • shout and clout
  • saggy baggy
  • shake and bake
  • slowly but surely
  • smoke and joke
  • son of a gun
  • stash and dash
  • stitch and bitch
  • stop and drop
  • so far, so good
  • surf and turf
  • teeny-weeny
  • time and tide
  • town and gown[1]
  • true blue
  • use it or lose it
  • wake and bake
  • wear and tear
  • weed and feed
  • wham, bam, thank you, ma'am
  • willy nilly
  • wine and dine[1]
  • yea or nay
  • (the) yeas and (the) nays

In law and official documents, there are many irreversible binomials and triplets consisting of near synonyms, such as the oft-heard terms and conditions[8] and cease and desist.[8] See the Legal doublet article for a list.



The most common conjunctions in an irreversible binomial are and or or.

With "and" as the conjunction


With "or" or "nor" as the conjunction


  • all or nothing
  • better or worse
  • big or small
  • black or white
  • business or pleasure[2]
  • the chicken or the egg
  • day or night
  • dead or alive[2]
  • do or die
  • fight or flight
  • (neither) fish nor fowl
  • give or take[1]
  • good or bad
  • gentle or simple
  • he or she
  • heads or tails
  • (come) hell or high water
  • (neither) here nor there
  • (neither) hide nor hair
  • his or her
  • hit or miss
  • (not one) jot or tittle
  • kill or cure
  • kill or be killed
  • (neither) love nor money
  • make or break[1]
  • more or less
  • now or never
  • put up or shut up
  • rain or shine[2]
  • rhyme or reason
  • right or wrong[2]
  • sink or swim
  • sooner or later[2]
  • take it or leave it
  • two or more
  • up or down[2]
  • (neither) use nor ornament
  • victory or death
  • win or lose
  • yes or no

With no conjunction


People and fictional characters


Rhyming slang


  • Adam and Eve
  • apples and pears
  • bottle and glass[note 5]
  • Brahms and Liszt
  • dog and bone
  • frog and toad
  • hand and blister
  • north and south
  • rabbit and pork
  • trouble and strife
  • two and eight
  • whistle and flute



Irreversible binomials are sometimes isocolons (bicolons, tricolons, etc.) which have become set phrases.

They may also be called simply binomials.

With three words, they may be called trinomials, and may satisfy the rule of three in writing.

Common trinomials




See also



  1. ^ a b Etymologically synonyms; functionally antonyms.
  2. ^ In the United Kingdom eggs and bacon is the common term and saying bacon and eggs would out the user as American.
  3. ^ In the United Kingdom, synonymous to bob and weave in common parlance and origin from the world of boxing (i.e. pugilistic).
  4. ^ A jocular nonsense reply to the question (usually a child's) of "what's for dinner (breakfast, or lunch)?" London usage, now all but archaic.
  5. ^ Or more commonly just bottle, which leads on to aris from aristotle that is the rhyming slang for bottle.
  6. ^ Jocular variant


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z Gramley & Pätzold (2004). A Survey of Modern English (2 ed.). London: Routledge. p. 58. ISBN 9781134420469. Retrieved 2024-04-28.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az ba bb bc bd be bf bg bh bi bj bk bl bm bn bo bp bq br bs bt bu bv bw bx by bz ca cb cc cd ce Word Pairs
  3. ^ Malkiel, Yakov (1959) Studies in irreversible binomialsLingua 8:113–160
  4. ^ Butterfield, Jeremy (2015) Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th edition, ISBN 0199661359, p. 436, s.v. "irreversible binomials"
  5. ^ a b Martin, Gary. Spick-and-span, Phrases.org.uk
  6. ^ a b c "8 Amusing Stories Behind Common Expressions | Reader's Digest". Reader's Digest. 2011-11-13. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  7. ^ "life and limb | meaning of life and limb in Longman Dictionary of contemporary English | LDOCE". Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online. LDOCE. Retrieved 7 December 2018. life and limb formal your life and physical health – used especially when this is threatened in some way
  8. ^ a b c Espenschied, Lenné Eidson (2010). "10.1 Eliminate clutter and redundant language § Eliminate common doublets and triplets". Contract Drafting: Powerful Prose in Transactional Practice. ABA Fundamentals0. Chicago: American Bar Association. pp. 164–165. ISBN 978-1-60442-795-0. LCCN 2010003298. OCLC 505017586. OL 15443452W.


  • Cooper, William E. and Ross, John R. (1975). World order. In Robin E. Grossman et al. (Eds.), Papers from the Parasession on Functionalism, Chicago Linguistic Society, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, pp. 63–111.
  • Sarah Bunin Benor, Roger Levy, "The Chicken or the Egg?: A Probabilistic Analysis of English Binomials", Language 82:2:233-278 (June 2006) JSTOR 4490157 full text
  • Ourania Hatzidaki, "Binomials and the Computer: a Study in Corpus-Based Phraseology", ALLC/ACH Conference, University of Glasgow, July 2000 abstract