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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) someone employed to keep financial records

Accounting books, origin of bookkeeper, the only word with three consecutive double letters

We’ve talked a little bit before here on HH about words that have no repeated letters. They’re called isograms, and alongside some fairly familiar examples (binoculars, troublemaking, unproblematic, blacksmith) the longest English isograms contain 15 non-repeated letters—with words like uncopyrightable, misconjugatedly and dermatoglyphics (the science of fingerprints) sharing the crown.

If uncopyrightable documents were ever known as uncopyrightables, that would push us up to 16 letters—and if someone became a specialist in the skin just below your fingertips, you could argue that they their work was of a subdermatoglyphic nature, which would total 17. But alas neither of these examples has any real currency (and it’s fair to say that they’re both probably of more use to wordplay fans than the actual English vocabulary).

With all of that in mind, however, some more isograms popped up on the HH Twitter feed yesterday:

And that led to an interesting question in the comments:

The short answer here is, no. Excluding place names, proper nouns, and onomatopoeic inventions like aarrgghh! and yeeuurrgh!, English doesn’t really tend to tolerate more than three consecutive pairs of repeated letters—so bookkeeper really is top of the tree.

There are, however, a handful of words that could be argued to equal it—like tattooee (someone who gets tattooed), barroommate (a drinking companion), flooddoor (part of a dam), feeddoor (part of a furnace), and sweettoothed (having a taste for sugary foods). But with the exception of tattooee, most of these words would usually be hyphenated.

So too, of course, is book-keeper sometimes, but its unhyphenated spelling has established itself pretty firmly in the language, allowing it to take a fairly secure hold on its crown here.

That, however, hasn’t stopped wordplay fanatics from inventing ever-more impressive words in an attempt to topple it.

One of the most famous examples of these is subbookkeeper, a word for a bookkeeper’s assistant that the American writer Martin Gardner rescued from obscurity and included in his book The Unexpected Hanging in 1969:

Olin Jerome Ferguson and Leo Moser each called my attention to subbookkeeper (listed in Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2d edition, 1942, page 2,507) which has four doublets in a row. “What a boob the bookkeeper will think he is,” wrote Peter F Arvedson, “when he finds out there is an English word with five sets of successive double letters that describe him more completely: boobbookkeeper.” Stephen Barr, when I told him about this, added a sixth doublet with subboobbookkeeper.
Martin Gardner, The Unexpected Handing and Other Mathematical Diversions (1969)

As a word in its own right, subbookkeeper hasn’t really caught on, so its four pairs of repeated letters are still somewhat questionable. They’re not quite as questionable as the likes of subboobbookkeeper, of course—nor any of the other words like these that have been proposed over the years.

You could, for instance, argue that someone who makes the jib booms for sailing ships is a jibboommaker. The quality of being a buffoon could be called buffoonness, or similarity to ratteen fabric could be classed as ratteenness. A competitive vegetable-grower might be a leekkeeper. Something as great and as grand as the Irish fairytale giant Finn MacCool could be described as MacCoollike. And an exceptional cohabiter might best be called a superroommate.

Going even further, you could argue that a room with a flood door is a flooddoorroom. Someone in charge of a baboon enclosure (and who prefers the alternative spelling babboon) would work as a babboonnookkeeper, which has five pairs of double letters. Their colleague might be a raccoonnookkeeper, which has six. And if either of them also worked part time looking after a house in a nook on the Moon at midday, then they would also be employed as a moonnoonnnookkeeper, which has seven (and, with a grateful hat-tip, was a word invented by wordplay aficionado Dmitri Borgmann in 1965).

Obviously, we’re now way off into the realm of the bizarre and the unrealistic here; there’s always a point at which wordplay turns away from actually finding interesting words, and morphs into a game of linguistic oneupmanship involved in concocting ever-more ludicrous neologisms. Discount those from the race, and yes—so long as no one ever builds a moon-noon-nook and employs someone to look after it—it really is bookkeeper that has the most consecutive pairs of repeated letters in the English language.

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