Words with rhyme but no reason

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The Independent Online
THERE is a well known actor with a strange name: Sean Bean. The strange thing is not that he is named after a vegetable - after all, Jasper Carrott and Cubby Broccoli, co-producer of the James Bond films, were, so the pattern is well established. And the United States boasts a writer called R W Apple Jr, the jazz trumpeter Don Cherry and the actor Jack Lemmon.

No, the odd thing about Sean Bean is that it rhymes on paper but not to the ear. It looks as if it should rhyme, but it doesn't, for the simple reason that the Irish write the name Sean, but pronounce it Shorn. If they pronounced Bean as Born, it would all be a lot easier, but they don't, so we are deprived of a rhyme.

A pity, because the British love a bit of rhyme. Has it ever occurred to you that a lot of our expressions come about as miniature poems? No? Well, they do. I once began a list of phrases or words in English created simply to make a rhyme. It wasn't a very long list. Here it is:

Argy-bargy

Pub grub

Arty-farty

Easy-peasy

The reason it wasn't very long is that I lost it before I could get any further, and I have only just found it again, but inspired by the sight of Mr Bean's name, I have started work again, and it is amazing just how much of the English language is composed of these rhyming words, these near mirror images . . .

Hoity-toity

Willy-nilly

Silly-billy

Hi-fi

Backpack

Fat cat

Heebie-jeebies

Namby-pamby

Delhi belly

Sin-bin

These are not to be confused with the alliterative, non-rhyming pairs, such as flimflam, King Kong, singsong, ding-dong, shillyshally, dilly-dally, and so on, nor indeed with the smaller group of words formed by repeating the same syllable (so-so, gaga, chin-chin, chop chop, go- go), which could provide a text for another sermon - no, I am just thinking of the English fondness for using rhyme playfully. The sin-bin could have been the 'sin box', for instance, or even the 'foul pen', but somebody couldn't resist the rhyme of 'sin-bin'. (It's the same combination of consonants, oddly, as Sean Bean.)

And there must be many more tantalising signs than 'Pub Grub' that you could put outside a pub to indicate the presence of food inside - Pub Food, Pub Fare, Pub Lunches, Home Cooking - but the lure of the rhyme obviously proves too strong for many pubs. (You shouldn't use the word 'chef', of course. The British only put the word 'chef' outside an establishment that relies on a caterer rather than a chef, such as 'Little Chef', etc. If a restaurant does have a chef, it is taken for granted and not mentioned.)

Sometimes you can see this rhyme-creation process in action. It's clear why Alexandra Palace, for instance, became Ally Pally simply because the two first syllables rhyme, whereas Crystal Palace was never in any danger of becoming Cryssy Pally. You can see why Delhi belly is the favoured name for gastro- whatsit, ahead of Montezuma's revenge and the Aztec two-step; gippy tummy is only a pale rival. (How about 'mummy's tummy' for Egyptian upsets?)

Occasionally, by good luck, you get this effect ready-made in real life. There was a popular British musician in the Forties called Harry Parry. What a stroke of luck] What a passport to memorability] I wonder if the Chinese called him Ally Pally?

Even today you can see these rhyming formations coming into place. 'Arty-farty' must be fairly recent, and so must 'gangbang'. The most modern one I can think of is 'Stormin' Norman', the creation of which is about the one positive thing that came out of the Gulf war. Come to think of it, there is a more up-to-date example in the form of Clinton's Louisiana aide, James Carville, known to everyone as 'the Ragin' Cajun'.

You may wonder if there is any purpose to these wanderings through the grubby back streets of poetry. Well, there is. I had an uncle who invented one of these phrases, and spent most of his life trying to popularise it, without success. It was formed by analogy with 'ipso facto'. 'Ipso facto,' he said, meant roughly 'transparently obvious to anyone sober enough.' But what, he asked, about things that were obvious only when you were drunk? 'Ipso dipso,' he said. I quite liked that.

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