Vocab

Friday - - Leisure -

With rhyme and rea­son Af­ter last week’s dis­cus­sion on con­so­nan­tal rhymes (a rather big term for words com­mon in a child’s lan­guage, such as hig­gledy-pig­gledy and teensy-weensy) the ques­tion arises: are there also vowel rhymes?

There are. The words and phrases in this group redu­pli­cate the same syl­la­ble with only a change in vowel, as in chitchat. If any­thing, there are even more vowel rhymes than con­so­nan­tal ones: flip-flop, flim-flam, criss­cross, ping-pong – and even King Kong! Ca­sual anal­y­sis of vowel rhymes leads to an in­ter­est­ing com­mon­al­ity: a very def­i­nite ten­dency to move from the high front vowel (as in bit) to a mid or low vowel (as in bat). As you can see, the ‘a’ in bat is not a reg­u­lar ‘a’-sound­ing long vowel as in bake, just as other sec­ond vow­els in vowel rhymes, such as hip-hop.

Another com­mon fea­ture: se­man­ti­cally, th­ese words fre­quently be­lit­tle the ob­ject de­scribed. Chitchat is clearly in­con­se­quen­tial talk. Bric-a-brac and knick-knacks are in­ex­pen­sive lit­tle tri­fles. Riffraff con­sti­tute the worth­less el­e­ment of so­ci­ety. In­ci­den­tally, riffraff is an an­cient word com­ing to us from Old French in the ex­pres­sion rif et raf, de­rived from the verbs ri­fler (to spoil) and raf­fler (to rav­age or snatch away).

Tit for tat is an ex­pres­sion that uses the in­ner rhyme with an ex­tra word in be­tween. Pick­pocket shows the same vowel rhyme with the ad­di­tion of a fi­nal syl­la­ble.

The third group­ing of a type of rhyming in­volves redu­pli­ca­tion of the same syl­la­ble, as in dodo, mur­mur, papa or mama. They are also called tau­tonyms, and other ex­am­ples in­clude can­can (a French dance), Bora Bora (a French Poly­ne­sian is­land, and its dance hula-hula), and many oth­ers.

In all th­ese ex­am­ples, the first and last halves are spelt and sound the same. How­ever, the for­mer re­quire­ment is not nec­es­sary, as demon­strated by the word cuckoo.

A num­ber of th­ese words are ono­matopoeic, or imi­ta­tive of sounds. This is prob­a­bly true of tom tom, which comes to us from the Hindi tam-tam, just as the name of the Cuban dance cha-cha-cha is also likely to rep­re­sent imi­ta­tion of the mu­si­cal in­stru­ments. We’ll leave you, sans elab­o­ra­tion, with a French imi­ta­tive word that means ‘silly’ or ‘fool­ish’: gaga.

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