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.