Irreversible binomials

Irreversible binomial is a linguistic term I came across today on this blog post. It was coined by Yakov Malkiel in a 1959 article in the linguistics journal, Lingua, and refers to pairs of words on either side of a conjunction such as and that are always used in a particular order. For example, bread and butter, salt and vinegar, fish and chips, meat and potatoes, gin and tonic, time and tide, cloak and dagger, ladies and gentlemen, knife and fork, and head over heels.

Some such pairs are reversible in parts of the English speaking word – is it cheese and bacon or bacon and cheese, for example? Both versions are used in the UK at least. To some extent is depends on the ratio of cheese to bacon – if you have more cheese than bacon in your sandwich, then you might call it a cheese and bacon sandwich.

Can you think of any other irreversible binomials in other languages?

In Welsh there’s bara menyn (bread (&) butter).

This entry was posted in English, Language, Linguistics.

0 Responses to Irreversible binomials

  1. Actually, I think that bara menyn isn’t one of the irreversible binominals you are describing. I’d tend to interpret menyn as a qualifier of bara, so the two words are not in coordination with each other. It’s more like butter(ed) bread than bread (and) butter.

    Then again, everything in language is open to interpretation.

  2. In Carioca Brazilian Portuguese, “Feijão com Arroz” (lit. Bean with Rice), “Presunto e Queijo” (lit. Ham and Cheese).

    There are more. Way more.

  3. Peter J. Franke says:

    What about (in English): love & peace or love & hatred; bed & breakfast…
    In Frisian (Frysk): bed en brochje ( bed and breakfast);
    In Dutch: hoog en laag ( high and low, but actually used in a statement to claim this as absolute or in combination with the verb springen, to jump, it means “whether you like it or not”);
    In Dutch: vast en zeker but in Flamish they say: zeker en vast
    (in both cases the meaning is “sure”).
    In Arabic: ash shams wa ‘l haq: (the) sun and (the) truth and al qamr wa al hub: (the) moon and (the) love.

  4. dmh says:

    Where I’m from in the USA (NC) we say Bacon and Cheese.

  5. Nancy says:

    In Hebrew, “halav u dvash” — milk and honey, which is irreversible in English, too.

    In Spanish, a dish of black beans and rice is always “moros y cristianos” — Moors and Christians — and not the other way around. And it’s “arroz con pollo” — rice and chicken — even though the chicken is technically the main event.

    Do meter or stress have something to do with it?

  6. anònim says:

    Catalan: pa amb tomàquet.

  7. Petruza says:

    Actually “Arroz con Pollo” is Rice with Chicken.

    Other irreversible binomials in ( Rioplatense ) Spanish:

    – Jamón y Queso ( Ham and cheese )
    – Pan con manteca ( Bread with butter )
    – El día y la noche ( Lit. the day and the night, meaning that two things or persons are totally different )
    – Capa y espada ( Kind of cloak and dagger )

  8. Dreaminjosh says:

    @ DMH-

    I’m also in NC (Charlotte) and I never hear anyone say bacon and cheese.. mainly because, when would you EVER be served bacon and cheese here? You’ll hear bacon and egg. The only time you’d ever even hear cheese mentioned with bacon is if you say “bacon, egg and cheese”.

    You’ll almost always hear “Bacon and egg”, though.

  9. Leitbulb says:

    I think i have a three word one: every man woman and child.

  10. michael farris says:

    Tom, Dick and Harry?

  11. Lev says:

    In Hebrew, when buying food in a pita, the seller will ask you: Hummus, chips (French fries), salat (salad)? This is an unpermutable trinomial, though actually the salad is put in before the chips. I think the order is due to rhytm (in “salat”, the last syllable is stressed)

  12. DA says:

    In English, Salt and Pepper. Neighbouring Welsh say pepper and salt (pupur a halen), the other way around. Reversing them in Welsh would need a mutation on pupur (halen a phupur), and that order is becoming the preferred order for people who have learnt fluent Welsh in school, without any Welsh being spoken in the home, so they are translating the English word order.
    Interesting that in English, Pepper-and-salt is the correct order for describing the colour of hair or cloth.

  13. Cakra says:

    I’m not sure if these are irreversible binomials, as the word ‘and’ is always omitted. ‘ช้อนส้อม’ (chon som) means spoon (and) fork and nobody says ‘somchon’. ‘ข้าวแกง’ (khao kaeng) means rice (and or with) curry. The dish looks like what it is called.

    ‘พริกกับเกลือ’ (phrik kap kluea), literally means chilli and salt, is mixture of chilli, salt and sugar. It is some kind of dip to be eaten with fruits. This may be real irreversible binomial in Thai.

  14. Dreaminjosh says:

    @ DA

    Here in the states, we always describe hair as “Salt-and-pepper”- never “Pepper-and-salt”.

  15. LandTortoise says:

    English: black and white (as in photos)
    Spanish: blanco y negro (white and black).

  16. @man says:

    In Spanish: mas o menos (“more or less”, also irreversible in English, and in French: comme ci comme ça, lit. translated “like this, like that” and used similarly.)

    In American English, “red, white and blue” is an irreversible trinomial, referring to the colors of the flag. If one were to say “I love the white, blue and red!” no one would take it as an expression of patriotism…

    Another English trinomial that comes to mind is “Hip hip hooray!” although it’s an odd one, with a doubled word and no real semantic content. One would never say “Hip hooray hip!” but “hip” has a different meaning on its own and “hooray” works on its own to convey a briefer and less enthusiastic version of the same sentiment.

    No real q

  17. Daydreamer says:

    To describe a chaotic situation you would use “drunter und drüber” (upside down) in German. The reference to “Sodom and Gomorrha” should be known in many languages and even the Hebrew “Tohu wa Bohu” would qualify for this category, wouldn’t it?

  18. @LandTortoise

    In Portuguese, you’ll say “Preto e Branco” (Black and white) also.


    Also in Portuguese, you’ll hear “mais ou menos” (More or less). And in French, there is also que equivalent expression “Plus ou moin”, never “Moin ou plus”.

  19. Peter J. Franke says:

    “Ida y vuelta” (Castilliano) ( to go and come back, but you also have to say this when you want a return ticket.

  20. VV says:

    There are many “irreversible binomials” in Armenian, similar to “bread and butter”, etc. Always “u” is used for “and”, never – “ev” (both mean “and”). Here some interesting ones:
    Sar u dzor – Mountain and canyon (never – “Ler”, which is another word for “Mountain”).
    Shun u katu – Dog and cat (for people who do not get along)
    Kartj u konkret – Short and concrete
    Kitch te shat – Less or more
    Amar dzymer – Summer winter (meaning, “all year long”)

    Some Russian:
    Khudo bedno – Thinly poorly
    Khleb i sol’ – Bread and salt
    Khleb s maslom – Bread with butter
    Polya luga – Fields meadows

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