Eureka! A rhyme for chutzpah

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The Independent Online
I can remember at school being asked if I knew what the shortest poem in the world was. I had no idea.

"It's only got three words in it," said my questioner. "It goes like this: `Hired. Tired? Fired!' "

I thought this was clever - cleverer than the rather longer "Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker" - and I was glad to know, so early in life, what the shortest poem in the world was. Until I met someone who knew better.

"Know the shortest poem in the world?" he asked me.

"Yes," I said, and I recited the hired, tired, fired one.

"No," I was told. "There is a shorter one than that. It is called "Fleas."

"How does it go?"

"Adam / Had 'em."

This, to my eye, depended more on the title than it really should, but I had to admit it was neat and very short. It also, like the other one, rhymed. In fact, it was nothing but rhyme. This responds to a very deep need in us. For all that modernists go on about free verse and prose poetry, our poetic instincts are very traditional. (That is why you never get a greetings card with a free verse inscription. Ezra Pound and TS Eliot did their pioneering poetic work 70 years ago, and it still hasn't seeped through to the people who buy verse on cards.)

When it comes to expressions, there's nothing we like better than a rhyme. "Pub food" is OK as a phrase, but "Pub grub" is what people put up outside pubs. When ice hockey players are sent off to cool down, they could be put in a detention area, except that someone came up with "sin bin", which is not only more graphic but also more versified. It is a poem in its own right.

It's even better when a rhyme like this comes ready-born: when "amateur dramatics" turns so easily into Am Dram; when the music on the Texas-Mexico border becomes Tex-Mex.

There are lots of these rhyming expressions littering our language. Slap happy. Hell's bells. Toy boy. Hot pot. Flat hat. Town and gown. Fag hag. Killer diller ... I don't know what killer diller means. It's a vogue expression from the 1930s that you occasionally come across on old swing records. It's one of those American expressions that come across the Atlantic and find a temporary niche here.

Another of them came over this very week. Shock jock. People suddenly started saying that Talk Radio was going to be full of shock jocks. Talk Radio said that Talk Radio wasn't going to be full of shock jocks. Good. But either way, nobody was even using the expression two weeks ago, and now suddenly it was in headlines, and still nobody knew what it meant. That's how fast things take over.

Now, of course, you and I know that a shock jock is one of those right- wing American radio hosts who had such an influence on the last mid-term US elections. We know this because we have been told it by authoritative media bores. We have not actually heard one of these guys at work. We probably wouldn't recognise one if we heard one. But we know what a shock jock is, because we vaguely know that "jock" is American slang for a disc jockey, and so shock jock makes sense as a radio talking head who utters uncomfortably spiky things.

It hardly seems to matter that there are no such people in Britain, that all our DJs are about as challenging as low-fat yoghurt (schlock jocks?) But what does matter is that every time we import or invent a phrase like "shock jock", it must tend to alter the balance of the rest of the language, to send out a few shock waves after which things will never be quite the same again. For instance, if we start to accept "jock" as a man who makes talking noises on the radio, the expression "Jock" will start to lose force as an expression for Scotsman.

Or will it? After all, because we call a disc jockey a DJ, it doesn't mean we have stopped calling a dinner jacket a DJ.

It seems odd to us that Americans call war veterans "vets" and also call animal doctors "vets", but I am assured by Americans that there is no confusion between the two.

What does all this prove? Nothing. This is all about something else quite different. It's about the Yiddish word "chutzpah". All my life I have believed that "chutzpah" was one of those words like "orange" for which there is no rhyme in the English language.

The other day I saw a newish product on the market, in which you bath your feet to make then feel fresh. It's a sort of Jacuzzi for feet. It is being marketed as a "foot spa".

Eureka! I thought. Foot spa! At last, a rhyme for chutzpah!

But I couldn't write a whole piece just about one rhyming discovery. Hence all the other stuff, which I hope was not uninteresting in its own way.