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Rhyme time

Rhyme time
A look at the role rhyme plays in the creation of new words and phrases

by Susan Jellis

Negative values, media shorthand and advertising speak
Partial rhymes
Yiddish rhymes and rhyming phrases
Reduplicative words
Listen carefully – make your own collection

Toy boy, sin bin, no-show – we love these snappy terms that not only express a concept but do so succinctly, creatively, memorably – and in rhyme. Once heard, they are not easily forgotten. Rhyme time itself is not a standard compound that you’ll find in dictionaries, but it sounds as though it could be. You can imagine it might be the title of a radio poetry programme or a book of poems. And you’ll find it on the web – it’s a page on the BBC CBeebies website for children and is frequently used in libraries’ advertising for children’s activities.

Rhyming terms exploit our sense of rhythm in language and the sound association of the stressed syllables welds them into memorable units. While, like rhyme time, they may be neutral in tone, more often than not they add colour and opinion to simple description - hitting the nail on the head better than a longer or more explicit phrase might do. It’s the neatness and economy of expression that makes them appealing, the rhyming that makes them memorable. The Macmillan English Dictionary contains lots of them and new ones are being created all around us, all the time.

Some are accidental rhymes, or are so established that their rhyme no longer calls attention to itself: (nouns) picnic, hi-fi (now also wi-fi), bandstand, and the more recent ones shareware and dual-fuel; (verbs)
tie-dye(d), backtrack, and speed read; (adjective / noun) pea green. They are apparently neutral terms for everyday objects and activities; an event in which people run a long distance, usually to raise money for a charity, is known as a fun run. If there is a fine line between two things, it’s difficult to see the difference between them.


Negative values, media shorthand and advertising speak

Rhyming compounds - for the most part nouns - often have attitude, however, and very often it’s negative. Created intentionally, these compounds tend not to be simply descriptive, but bring with them a value judgement. Some may have appreciative overtones, such as dream team or hotshot, but they are outnumbered by the negative ones: fat cat, wheeler-dealer or snail mail. They may be created as shorthand, and then spread through the media, like yummy mummy , chick flick and wild child.

The rhyming style of word creation is not new, as illustrated by once-common informal terms such as odd bod (=a person regarded as strange) and peg leg (=a wooden false leg). Nitwit is from the early 20th century, zoot suit from the 1930s; flower power and brain drain are coinages from the 1960s, as is boob tube (with different US and UK meanings). Tricky dicky (=a person who uses dishonest tricks), meanwhile, became prominent during the Watergate scandal: ‘Dicky’ is a short form of Nixon’s first name, Richard. In our present era of the sound bite, however, rhyming forms have become even more prominent, and prolific.

Rhyming compounds are often created intentionally and used in advertising, because their rhyming structure draws attention and is slick and memorable: meal deal (=a choice of food items bought for a fixed price), awayday (=a leisure trip for a day) - these fall into the category of catchy expressions that grab attention and stay in the mind.


Partial rhymes

Rather than a full rhyme involving a vowel plus a following consonant or consonant group, many terms (neutral, approving or disapproving) feature a partial rhyme: golden oldie, or shelter belt (=an area of trees giving shelter). Sometimes only the stressed vowels are the same, but the fact that the vowels are the same (vowel assonance) gives the words greater status as a unit:

safe haven, fail-safe
squeaky clean, (be on) easy street
child bride (=a woman who marries when she is very young), high-rise (which has led to the non-assonant low-rise as an opposite)
best guess
whizz kid, chick lit
own goal, roadshow
odd job, top dog
lads’ mag (=a magazine for young men), fancy pants / glad rags (=smart clothes)
rough justice
new broom (=someone who’s new in a job and therefore very keen), (have a) screw loose

The word list produces quite a number of these compounds. Hit list, wish list (‘wants list’ doesn’t have the same force) and rich list (‘wealthy list’ wouldn’t catch on as well) are just a few examples.


Yiddish rhymes and rhyming phrases

A deliberate pairing of a word with a following nonsense rhyme is sometimes created by the use of the prefix shm- replacing the consonant or consonant group at the beginning of the second element: book shmook; doctor shmoctor; waltz schmaltz. The whole expression has dismissive or derogative meaning. This formation is ad hoc and does not create a compound. It’s heard more often in speech than in writing and tends to be specific to the occasion, rather than long-lasting. It has come through American English from Yiddish and it is less productive in general British English.

The power of rhyme in the creation of neologisms does not stop at compounds and can be seen in many phrases joined by and: meet and greet, wine and dine, wear and tear. There are also formations like best of the rest and the name of the game, while Greatness awaits was the slogan for the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship 2007. These phrases are even used for things like traffic signs, where Twenty’s plenty is now employed to encourage drivers to slow down to 20 miles per hour in residential areas (see cover photograph). The sound linkage is a large part of the appeal and impact of the phrase.


Reduplicative words

Another category of rhyming vocabulary covers so-called reduplicative words, words where one part is echoed in sound by a similar other part, starting with a different consonant and carrying no meaning of its own. The ‘echo’ may come first or last. Many of these terms date back as far as the 16th century – take, for example, razzle-dazzle, hanky-panky, humdrum and the heebie-jeebies. A term not commonly heard in Britain these days, but which Britons often hear in tourist spots abroad is lovely jubbly. The second part is a meaningless emphasis of the sound of ‘lovely’ when it is used to express pleasure. The phrase was popularised by the 1980s British sitcom, Only Fools and Horses.

One group of reduplicative words has a similar consonant structure in both parts, but a change of vowel, e.g. pitter-patter, riff-raff and knickknack. The vowel change i to a is very common in these terms (which are not actually true rhymes), although it’s not the only pairing. This isn’t a very common way of producing new words in modern English, however.



Lastly, words and phrases may be linked together, not by rhyme, but because they start with the same consonant or consonant group. They do not rhyme, but there is an association of sounds which makes the whole somehow more than its parts. This also helps to make the item memorable, for example surround sound, it’s now or never, or cool customer (=a person who is extremely calm in a difficult situation). Alliteration may occur over several words in a sentence, as in Shakespeare’s famous description of England: ‘This precious stone set in the silver sea or the well-known tongue-twister: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.


Listen carefully – make your own collection

Doctor Foster
Went to Gloucester
In a shower of rain
He stepped in a puddle
Right up to his middle
And never went there again!

(Author unknown)

In Britain there are years in which it seems to rain most of the summer. Gloucester is not the only area to have suffered severe and unusual floods in recent times, but it does remind us of the old nursery rhyme about the unfortunate Doctor Foster getting thoroughly wet on a trip there. It’s also an amusing example of how similar sounds, both full and partial rhymes, may be used for effect: Doctor / Foster / Gloucester; rain / again; puddle / middle.

Start to listen out for the sound associations in the speech around you and you’ll hear many of the examples discussed here, as well as lots more. There are numerous examples in the Macmillan English Dictionary and even more that are not included in any dictionary, even though they are well used. Once you’re on the right wavelength, spotting
them is easy-peasy!