Bobble, sniffle, sparkle. Blabber, chatter, flicker. English, along with many other languages, has a delightful class of verbs called frequentatives. Fancy name aside, these words simply show some sort of small or intense repeated action. Chattering, for instance, involves incessant chatting, and sniffling, slight and ongoing sniffing.
English can mark its frequentative verbs with the endings -le and -er. And once you spot the pattern, you’ll start noticing these curious words all over the place. Be careful, though, as English has many more words ending with -le and -er that aren’t frequentatives.
Here’s a list, by no means exhaustive, of 24 of the most unusual and surprising frequentatives hiding right in our everyday speech.
A twinkling star looks like it won’t stop winking and blinking. That’s exactly what its root, the Old English twincan, meant.
Crinkling involves lots of little cringes. Cringe originally meant to shrink or flinch.
Fizzle first meant “to fart silently.” The fizz- comes from fist, an old word for fart, related to feisty.
Slither is a creeping and crawling way to slide.
Back in the 16th century, straddle meant “to spread the legs apart,” especially while one was striding.
The root of waddle is wade. We can picture a penguin, after wading out of the sea, taking small and short steps as it waddles onto shore.
The root of flutter is fleet. Fleet is an old word meaning float. A baby bird flutters as if to keep itself afloat in the air.
If a cat skitters up a tree, it’s doing quite a bit of skiting. Now uncommon, skite means “to run off lightly and quickly.”
And if kids clamber up a wall, they’re climbing up it, hand over foot, with difficulty.
The little pushes and shoves of jostle come from joust—in all of its original horseback collision.
Tousle, which we largely use in tousled hair, is a frequentative of touse, “to handle roughly.” It’s related to the word tease, which originally meant to pull or pluck.
The ming in mingle is an Old English word for "mix." It’s also cousin to the -mong in among. Think of mingling, then, as a bustling sort of mixture.
Back in Middle English, to slumber was "to sleep lightly." Its base is an archaic verb slumen, to doze.
Sweltering heat makes it oppressively hot. Swelter is the frequentative of the Middle English swelt, to faint—and yet earlier, to die.
Swagger, first recorded in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is likely the frequentative of swag, to sway, especially from side to side. This action was later likened to a boastful gait.
Linger has lingered in the English language, but the root of this frequentative verb, leng, to length, is no longer around.
To swaddle is to snugly swathe, or wrap up, a baby.
We nestle in the sheets like a little critter forming its nest.
Wrestle is a very old frequentative verb. It’s formed from wrest, to twist, turn, or wrench, as wrestlers do on the mats.
When we haggle, it’s as if we’re chopping away at the price. Haggle is a frequentative of the obsolete verb hag, to cut or chop, related to hack.
Something dazzling puts us in a daze.
A stickler was originally a moderator or umpire, literally “one who stickles.” The now-rare stickle is a frequentative based on an old verb stight, “to set in order,” as rule-keepers are charged with doing.
A number of English frequentatives are actually borrowed from Dutch and German. Take swindler, from the German Schwindler, “a giddy and extravagant schemer.” In German, Schwindler is the frequentative of swintan, “to languish or disappear” (due to extreme light-headedness and disorientation, apparently).
Finally, we always joke we can be disgruntled but never gruntled. Well, we used to be. The “dissatisfaction” of disgruntled is rooted in gruntle, a little, low grunt. Gruntle was once an active verb in English—and perhaps it could do with some more frequency.