Miles Kington: Rhyme and punishment, or how to construct a holorime

I started wondering how I could fit the -able into Maida Vale before my conscious mind slapped my unconscious on the wrist and told it to behave

Tuesday 09 January 2007 01:00

Yesterday I was talking about the holorime, the strange verse form in which there are only two lines, both of which sound exactly the same, even if they look quite different, and which depends on the ability of English to throw up homophones.

It happens more often than we think, this tendency of language to come up with two words or phrases which sound the same. One frequently quoted example is the way people often mishear "Willingly the cross I'd bear..." as "Willing the cross-eyed bear...". I knew a man who was perpetually bemused by the fact "crustacean" sounded pretty much the same as "Crewe Station", yet was spelt so differently.

These things are probably dealt with in the same useless part of the brain that deals with crossword puzzle clues. Most people never get the hang of cryptic crossword clues, and are thus spared to spend a rich and happy life, but some of us are more or less entranced by word games and have to fight the tendency to play them. I had a crossword habit for a long time, and had to give it up almost like an addict renouncing a drug, but I still find my mind hearing little echoes in what other people say of things they did not mean to say at all.

There was a man on the radio the other day, for instance, saying that something had been "made available", which I heard as a phrase beginning "Maida Vale...", and I immediately started wondering how I could fit the -able into Maida Vale before my conscious mind slapped my unconscious on the wrist and told it to behave.

Similarly, I was once listening to someone talking about the writer Alice Thomas Ellis, and I found myself unconsciously rearranging the units of her name till it became Alastair Marcellus. I still marvel at the fact that when you say "Alastair Marcellus" out loud, you are also saying "Alice Thomas Ellis".

Which leads me back to the letter from Mr Ian Higgins, of Fife, which he sent two years ago and which I only got round to quoting from yesterday. He had risen to the challenge of producing a holorime in English, and before he did so, he reminded me of something I had never known, that the famous jazz saxophonist Paul Desmond had once come up with a clever, if slightly rough-edged, holorime. It was entitled "On Hitler", and it went like this...

He's a rootin'-tootin' high-falutin' son-of-a-gun.
He's a routine Teuton, Eiffel-lootin' sawn-off goon.

I wonder how long it took Paul Desmond to come up with those two apparently simple lines. I wonder, come to that, how long it took Mr Higgins to devise the two other holorimes he sent me, of which he remarks: "Here are two more works in progress, which sin prosodically, through approximation, and because they're silly." Here they are.

Ms Stephen, without a first-rate stakeholder sum or deal,
Must, even with outer fur straight, stay colder - some ordeal.


Oh, Kay ought to nip out in me van with a bridal bouquet,
OK? - or two-nip, poutin' Myfanwy, the bride, 'll boo Kay.

You can't help admiring the perverse, twisted, devious ingenuity that has gone into the composition of those two couplets.

I wonder if reading them will inspire any readers to have a go themselves at constructing a holorime. Or whether it will have the effect on them it has on me: to make me determined never to get involved in such an agonising and pointless pursuit again.

But I will leave you with one simple example taken from the French storehouse of holorimes, which seem much easier to compose in that language:

L'un dit: Comment cela se mène?
Lundi commence la semaine.

Which means, I suppose: "He says - How does that come about? Monday starts the week."

In other words, means nothing at all. Let us leave it there. That way madness lies.

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