A Brief History


Have you ever wondered how rhyme came to pass? In the history of language and linguistic development, there must have been a certain point when the first rhyme was uttered. But when did it happen? Come join me on a journey--sometimes serious, sometimes not--as we trip through the history of one of our most frequently maligned literary forms.

Strap on your spectacles.
Tune up your ears.
Let's find how rhyme's evolved
Over the years.

Suffice it to say, although there are many claims to the honor, we will probably never know exactly when rhyming began. Just think of it. As questions go, we are no where close to nailing down our own humanoid ancestry, much less the point when guttural utterances became laden with meaning, however simple it may have been. Perhaps as people gained a certain facility with the spoken word and communication became less of a struggle, some bright soul simply decided to play.

After all, without radio, TV, the printing press, the microphone or any phone, people had to do something for entertainment besides going to war. And even for that, you pretty much had to be within shouting distance to have any effect. Once people discovered how to have fun with phonics, rhyme couldn't have been far behind.

But how about this for a question to ponder: Instead of being so much doggerel, could rhyme indeed be a higher form of intellectual expression? Same-sounding words are sometimes elusive, especially if the rhyme is to be considered good. And more than that, the lines of words must also carry a virtual tune as measured in meter, cadence and rhythm.

And as long as we are pondering, in a certain way, could the unique linguistic quality of rhyme have parallels in puns? Could the rhymer and the "punner" (or might we say 'pundit'?) actually be cut from the same linguistic weave? If these are the things that make you go, "hmmm?" then you may have all the makings of a rhymologist--or better yet, a rhymer whose words are waiting to run free. So, where will this history take us on our attempt to break rhyme down from origins to its current state of evolution? Keep reading to find out.


Like many apparently simple things in life, there's a lot more to rhyme than meets the eye. Virtually every writer, whether poet, novelist, essayist or journalist, has likely toyed with rhyme at one time or another; most of the time not giving it a second thought beyond its schoolish fun. After all, it's not often we hear rhyme described as fascinating in its complexity, right?

What brings many, myself included, to rhyme is more of a stumbling headlong into the form because of its quirkiness and playfulness. After all, who hasn't recited "Roses Are Red" in the original or even written a knock-off? When I was growing up as an Air Force brat, a favorite was:

Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
You've got a shape,
Like a B-52.

It's hard not to love the romantic sentiment in that short verse written to my first girlfriend on Valentines Day. And what's not to like about its same sounding endings? Not to mention, it's got a bit of a beat. That rendering in rhyme was in about the fourth grade as I recall, when the massive B-52 jet bomber was becoming a household word on Air Force bases around the country.

Regretably, I can't claim to be the orignal author as most boys in my class were writing and reciting that little ditty ad infinitum at the time. Our teachers must have had the patience of Job. I'm certain Shakespeare thought the same thing about the beauty and functionality of rhyme, although perhaps fleetingly, as he added a rhyming couplet to the end of many of the acts and scenes in his plays.

So, let's get serious. You don't have to look very far to learn rhyme has a long history and is complex beyond all appearances. Google is loaded with what could be a literary googol of citations about rhyme. If you go there, I would plan to linger. For example, did you know...

* the first recorded (still surviving) rhyme was written in China in the tenth century BC? * rhyme is found in the Koran and in the Bible. * even the Greeks are known to have messed around with rhyme back in the day. * rhyme made its appearance in Europe well before the 7th century by which time the Irish were using it extensively? * rhyme started replacing alliteration (more on that in another post) as a preferred poetic form back in 14th century Europe?

And here are just a few of its many forms:

* Rhymes can be viewed generally or specifically. General rhymes have similar sounding words and may give a verse a sense of form. But they may not typically be regarded as rhyming in a strict way. The terms "near rhyme" (king-daring) or "forced rhyme" (noun-found) come to mind.

* On the other hand, rhymes in a specific sense are often referred to as perfect rhymes (see the B-52 above).

* Perfect Rhyme: Words in which the vowel sounds are exactly the same, whether spelled the same way or differently---the final stressed vowel sound (and the sounds that follow that vowel sound) are key, such as say-bay, dolt-bolt, good-would, shopping-hopping, locket-pocket.

* Perfect rhymes can be broken down further based on the number of rhyming syllables in the rhyming words.

* Of course, if there are perfect rhymes, there must be imperfect rhymes, also termed "near rhymes", already noted.

* Based on the location of the final stressed syllable in rhyming words, the rhyme can be classified as masculine, feminine or dactylic. (stay tuned next week).

* There can be rhyme which uses the same vowels (a characteristic known as "assonance") or the same consonants (known oddly enough as "consonance").

* There are also semirhymes where one word in the rhyming set has an extra syllable, not to mention half rhymes, pararhymes, syllabic rhymes, punning rhymes (where the words carry a very intentional and droll meaning), eye rhymes, tail rhymes, mind rhymes and holorhymes, just to name a few.

This list is far from exhaustive and that's just in English. Rhyming forms also vary based on the language in which they are written. Lost in translation doesn't even begin to cover it.

You can probably tell where this is going. First, there's no way to cover everything about rhyme in a single post. And second, because there's no way to cover it all in a single post, my new mission in life is to blog the socks off rhyme---to dignify it beyond doggerel; to lift it up as an art form; to celebrate its place in history; nay, to salute rhymers as risk takers in the face of often withering prosaic criticism.

So, take heart, rhymers. This is our time---and apparently it has been since about the 12th century. Who knew?


Just when you thought it was safe to break out your rhyming dictionary (or start running all your rhyming endings alphabetically through your head), someone tells you there's gender to contend with in the rhymes you write. What's up with that? After all, the last time you paid any attention to linguistic gender was Spanish class in the ninth grade---or was it when you ordered that beer during Spring Break in Puerto Vallarta?

No matter. The last place you thought gender would be an issue had to be rhyme, right? Well, fear not. It's not quite as problematic as you may anticipate. In fact, except that someone back in the day must have thought structural endings and sounds ought to be classified according to gender, it's unlikely that anyone would even notice. But just out of curiosity, it might be fun to try and sleuth out who among the ancients decided gender was important---and why.

So, where did the whole gender in rhyme thing originate? Did the early Chinese rhymers grapple with gender in their day? Although some of the oldest surviving Chinese poetry contains lyric aspects, because the written language is character based, any gender association to poetic form may be difficult to tease out. Left with that uncertainty, is the male-female poetic structure primarily western in origin? Could it simply be a non-functioning, vestigial "leftover" from Old Latin which etched its subtle tracks on the English language as romantic entanglements ebbed and flowed across Europe?

According to one source in the English Department at Carson-Newman College, ( the word "rhyme" itselforiginates "from Old French, rime meaning 'series,' in turn adopted from Latin 'rithmus' and Greek 'rhythmos'." Given some of the other gender assignments in Greek and Latin, might we ascribe gender features to the rhyming verses penned by the early Greeks and Romans?

No doubt, the definition of gender in rhyme could probably be argued until the cows come home, with a break taken only for milking before the debate starts again. As is true with virtually any sorting out of why words in any language might be classified as masculine versus feminine, rhymes are no different. One thing seems clear: at least in English, gender in rhyme seems to have little or nothing to do with the gender rules found in some romance languages.

That is, whether a line of verse in English ends in an "a" or "o" or other gender laden vowel or consonant, doesn't really matter as much as it does in the Spanish language. And speaking of word endings, despite its compromise value in the Italian language, the use of a neutral vowel (such as the letter "i") at the end of the plural form of both masculine and feminine words is not a gender-driven issue in English rhyme. But you have to admire the logical recognition of not being able to sort out gender in groups.

In the French language, the definition suggests line ending words which end in "e" are feminine and those that don't are masculine. Some sources also refer to "e" endings and unaccented ending syllables as being weak. Although I was a French major in college, I'll leave the "why" of those "differences" to others who know far more about the origins of the French language and who don't mind getting their shins kicked.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, although the reasoning might be debatable, the rules regarding gender in English rhyme are remarkably clear. According to the Collaborative International Dictionary of English, a female rhyme has a rhyming set in which the rhyming lines end in double-syllable words (ego, amigo). A male rhyme, on the other hand, is one where only the last syllable in the line endings agree (stand, demand). No doubt you have noticed the difference in where the stress is placed---keep reading.

The definitions are extended slightly in Brande and Cox (A Dictionary of Science, Literature and Art): "A rhyme, in which the final syllables only agree (strain, complain) is called a male rhyme; one in which the two final syllables of each verse agree, the last being short (motion, ocean), is called female." Simply stated, male rhymes end in words (often single syllable) where the final syllable in each line is accented. Female rhymes end in words where at least the last two syllables in the line match and the final syllable is unaccented.

In the spirit of using three or more sources, defines female (or more correctly feminine) rhymes as: "a rhyme either of two syllables of which the second is unstressed (double rhyme), as in motion, notion, or of three syllables of which the second and third are unstressed (triple rhyme), as in fortunate, importunate." In their turn, male (or masculine) rhymes are defined as: "a rhyme between stressed monosyllables or between the final stressed syllables of polysyllabic words: book, cook; collect, direct."

You won't have to look very far to find a purely male rhyme, for example in "The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Colridge:

"Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink."

Finding female rhymes is a little more challenging. But they can be found, such as in Sonnet 20 "A Woman's Face With Nature's Own Hand" by William Shakespeare (gotta love the iambic pentameter):

A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;

Notably, many if not most rhymes contain both feminine and masculine rhyming sets. Often the combination is seen in the same verse in either an A/A, B/B or an A/B, A/B rhyming sequence. At other times as the entire verse may be either masculine or feminine. Whether standing alone or in combination, rhyme has clearly established itself as much more than doggerel---to be covered in another post.

By the way, I should say that I am completely unqualified to judge whether the differences in a rhyme's gender have anything to do with the comparative complexity of either the line endings or their namesakes. Nor will I make a judgement as to why women prefer piles of pillows on the sofa while men would generally be OK sitting on a stump---make that a reclining stump. Yet it is a great deal of fun to use the variations in line endings, whether in gender terms or any other terms, as a creative basis for studying and writing rhyme.

Besides, it's a great conversation starter at parties if only because rhyming gender is no doubt rarely used---until now, that is....


Anyone who has written in rhyme or attempted to do so, has likely struggled with the question of whether it is good enough---meaning good enough that someone other than the writer (or writer's mom) will like it. Will it be deemed to have sufficient appeal amongst the reading public to actually be published?

(Note to self: interesting how "public" and "published" have the same root, isn't it?).

But is the goodness of a rhyme, in terms of its quality, solely in the eye of the beholder? Or are there particular inherent characteristics of a rhyme itself that can be classified or measured---that give it legs; make it last?

Right off the bat, let's set aside the publication issue of goodness versus rightness. An editor's or a publisher's decision to go with a rhyme may have more to do with "fit" rather than how well the rhyme is written. In a short piece for a magazine, the rhyme has to be relevant to the theme. It must also target the appropriate age and be true to the magazine's (or book publisher's) mission and vision. If a magazine's monthly theme is airplanes, a rhyme about the anticipated trajectory of bouncing beach balls probably won't cut it, no matter how good the rhyme is.

So, for sake of argument, we will assume the rhyme flows smoothly, has no obvious speed bumps in its rhythm and that it may even have a surprise twist to get a chuckle or even a sardonic eye roll out of the editor or publisher. But rhythm and wit in rhyme are different topics entirely. So, let's set them aside for the moment.

Instead this post is about "goodness" versus "badness" in rhyme solely in terms of rhyming words and line endings, AKA rhyme scheme. This will be mostly a structural discussion of perfect rhyme versus near rhyme and forced rhyme. And while we're at it, let's toss doggerel into the mix. In the words (pardon the pun) hammered home by one modern day bard (M.C. Hammer in "You Can't Touch This"), let's "break it down!"

GOOD (PERFECT) RHYME: So, what are editors and publishers looking for in rhyme? Before jumping in, I should qualify this answer as being based on my own personal experience with rejection---no, not that kind of rejection; I mean by editors and publishers---and the advice they have provided from time to time which has helped me improve my rhyming game.

Generally, good rhyme must... well... rhyme. And it must rhyme well. Near rhyme and forced rhyme are taboos which we will cover when we get to the "bad" stuff. Rhyme assumes that a set of rhyming words will follow a certain sequence. Rhyming sets come in pairs or fours or other usually equal numbers and can have either single (ray, say) or multiple (hatchet, ratchet) rhyming syllables. Remember the recent masculine/feminine topic? In either case, the endings of the rhyming lines should sound the same. And the pattern of how the endings are used in the verse should be consistent.

In a Shakespearean Sonnet, for example, the rhyming scheme is laid out in three quatrains (four-line stanzas) and an ending couplet: abab cdcd efef gg. Following that rhyming scheme, in each stanza the first and third lines rhyme, the second and fourth lines rhyme and the last two lines (the couplet) rhyme. In "Mary Had A Little Lamb", disregarding the repeated lines (little lamb, little lamb, little lamb), only the second and fourth lines in each stanza rhyme (_a_a _b_b _c_c _d_d). And for a four-line rhyming scheme, look no further than my rhyming picture book "There's A Spider In My Sink!" where all four lines in each stanza rhyme (aaaa bbbb cccc dddd, and so forth).

Regardless of the rhyming scheme you choose, just remember to keep your intended rhyming line endings sounding the same and your rhymes should be good except...

...when they're not.

BAD RHYME: Apart from problems with the content of a rhyme (flaky or shaky story, nonsensical verse that isn't otherwise interesting, funny or cute) and rhythm issues (cadence, meter, beat---to be covered in a later post), bad rhyme is usually judged based on the sound of the rhyming lines to the reader. Are the rhyming sets crisp, clear and tight. Or are they loosy-goosy, a technical term meaning not crisp, clear and tight?

Curiously, the definition of "near rhyme" isn't nearly as clear as you might think. According to Dr. Kip Wheeler at Carson-Newman College, near rhyme is only one among several terms used to describe what is called "inexact rhyme", which is "...created out of words with similar but not identical sounds." (

Adding to the confusion, according to Dr. Wheeler's website, imperfect rhyme imbeds near rhyme as one among many terms for this kind of rhyming badness: "approximate rhyme, pararhyme, slant rhyme, near rhyme, half rhyme, off rhyme, analyzed rhyme, or suspended rhyme." So, at best, nailing down the definition of near rhyme or imperfect rhyme is a little like trying to pin a tail on the donkey. Examples of such rhyming pairs which are close but not spot on: (gate-made, prevent-amend, immense-descends, insipid-intrepid).

Another example a rhyme out of kilter is one where the rhyming set consists of one word with the rhyme on a stressed syllable and the other on an unstressed syllable:

The footsteps echoed as if deep in a tomb,
While the boy lay asleep in his bedroom.

In virtually all these cases, if the reader (or editor or publisher) is expecting a certain euphonious "sound" to the rhyme, at best the verse is going to sound like the writer didn't really try very hard. At worst? It is a bit like nails on a chalk board even when reading silently. Regardless of what you call it, if a rhyme doesn't quite seem to rhyme, editors and publishers will likely not give it a second look. And if a reader actually finds it in print, the reaction is often, "how did this ever get published?"

Sometimes, such imprecisions may be forgivable if they aren't too egregious and they seem to fit well in the verse (tie a knot, pull it taught). If you are lucky, you might get away with one of those in an entire rhyme. So, it might be worth taking the risk. In the rhyming culture, there are stories that some poets have actually included a near rhyme in their best rhyming work if only to guarantee it's imperfection; a beauty mark, as it were.

But like almost any seasoning, a little goes a long way---and maybe even too far depending on how sensitive your taste is. The obvious exception, of course, is chili which can almost never be too hot for me. As I get older, my taste buds are apparently living on borrowed time. Come to think of it, that might explain the oddities in some of my rhymes.

Another measure of "badness" is forced rhyme, which occurs when the rhyming word endings sound exactly the same but the choice of the rhyming words is questionable. If you have to contrive a rhyming pair or really stretch the content just for the sake of the rhyme, it will probably land flat:

‘Twas a lickety, splickety day on the farm
In the middlest part of a summer so hotamus.
And under the giant, green huffinpuff tree,
Dylan last saw his fine Dinopotamus.

Although the verse does have an endearing quirkiness about it, a reader might wonder who in their right mind would come up with "so hotamus" to rhyme with "Dinopotamus". Of course, if you are the one person in the world who likes it, I will proudly admit to being the author. But for everyone else, I can confirm that until the forced rhyme (and probably a lot more) is fixed, this rhyme will thankfully remain unpublished.

At last we come to DOGGEREL. Briefly, doggerel is described in the Encyclopedia Britanica Online as "a low, or trivial, form of verse, loosely constructed and often irregular, but effective because of its simple mnemonic rhyme and loping metre. It appears in most literatures and societies as a useful form for comedy and satire. It is characteristic of children's game rhymes from ancient times to the present and of most nursery rhymes."

So, by definition, doggerel can be an effective verse form and is usually written in rhyme to capture its playfulness. Precision is not necessarily a consideration when it comes to doggerel. On the other hand, the presumed faults of this rhyming form can make it quite clever and engaging. Far from seriously poetic, it can nonetheless be highly popular and a load of fun. So, the value of rhyme considered to be doggerel--that is, its goodness or badness--truly is in the eye, and the ear, of the reader.

One of the best rejection letters I ever received was from the editor of a scholarly journal. The editor praised the rhythm of what he termed the "amusing doggerel" I had submitted. With that kind of critical acclaim, what else could I do but frame it.

Recapping: Near rhyme is basically trouble with the sound of the rhyming words. Forced rhyme is a rhyming set that just doesn't quite fit together---a square peg in a round hole. And doggerel is in a class by itself.

So, in a nutshell, this is one instance where near isn't dear, you don't want the force to be with you and doggerel may be bad to the bone in the very best way. OK. That was lame.

More to come....

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