Pepper and Salt

There are some pairs of words that often go together, and usually in a particular order. For example, the title of this post, Pepper and Salt, might seem a bit strange to native English speakers, as we usually say salt and pepper. There are many ideas about why we do this, but it might just be an old habit that developed over time.

pepper en zout

To Dutch speakers zout en peper (salt and pepper) would sound strange, as they usually say peper en zout (pepper and salt). Are there any other languages that do this?

The linguistic term for such pairs of words is binomials, and pairs of words that always, or almost always, appear in the same order are known as frozen binomials.

Some ideas about why these words are ordered in this way include:

  • More powerful and important words go first: kings and queens, boys and girls, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mum and dad, granny and grandpa, mother and child, ladies and gentlemen, cat and mouse, bread and jam, fish and chips
  • General words go first: rules and regulations, terms and conditions
  • Marked words go first: horse and carriage, trial and error, friend and foe (concrete before abstract, living before nonliving, positive before less positive, etc)

Pairs of words that always go together in a particular order and have a collective meaning in addition to their individual meanings are known as irreversible binomials.

Examples include: rock and roll, and legal terms like law and order, (last) will and testament and:

  • goods and chattels = any property that is not freehold, usually limited to include only moveable property
  • kith and kin = one’s acquaintances and relatives – kith (friends and acquaintances) only appears in this context
  • aid and abet = to assist another in the commission of a crime by words or conduct.
  • let or hindrance = having no impediment or obstacle to progression

Are there any language in which black and white is usually white and black, or other common pairs are reversed compared to English?

More about binomials

4 thoughts on “Pepper and Salt

  1. Interesting topic! In Polish, I would say “sól z pieprzem” – salt with pepper and not “sól i pieprz”, though this is also grammatically correct. Fron the Wikipedia list, “back and forth” in Polish is “forth and back” – “tam i z powrotem”. “Church and state”: “państwo i Kościół”, i.e. state and church. “Days and nights” is reversed too – “noce i dnie” – possibly because this is also the title of a famous 19th century novel. But all in all, I think binomials are used much less in Polish as a figure of speech.

  2. Am I right in thinking it’s usually “pupur a halen” (pepper and salt) in Welsh, rather than “halen a phupur”?

  3. Pupur a halen does seem to be more common in Welsh, but halen a phupur is also used to some extent.

  4. I\’d say the rhythm/prosody is a factor as well. To me as a Dutch speaker, the rhythm of peper en zout (TUM-ta-ta-TUM) somehow \”feels\” nicer than zout and peper (TUM-ta-TUM-ta). Of course I\’ve always heard it pronounced this way so I\’m heavily biased, but it could be that my language prefers ending combinations like these with a stressed syllable rather than an unstressed one.

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