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Suck it up, buttercup. It's always rhyme time

There's something in the human psyche that loves a rhyme. It goes beyond the success of musicals or the popularity of poets or the saccharine lines on greeting cards. In every corner of conversation, we gravitate to words that sound alike except for their opening letters, and if we can't get there honestly, we'll invent the words we need: Humpty Dumpty, Henny Penny, hanky-panky.

When Paul Simon listed the rhyming injunctions in his 1975 song 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover ("Make a new plan, Stan/ You don't need to be coy, Roy"), he was echoing the hep or hip vocabulary of the 1920s through 1960s, when rhymes were de rigueur. Sexual excitement (later broadened to include fidgeting) was "ants in your pants." "Shut up and eat your food," says Max Décharné's slang dictionary Straight from the Fridge, Dad, became "eat your mush and hush." It was just something they did, kid.

Only last week, columnist David Eddie advised a reader to "suck it up, buttercup," echoing the 1968 song Build Me Up, Buttercup by the Foundations. The mind naturally seeks out such rhymes, be it a campaign stop (meet and greet) or a position of extreme comfort (snug as a bug in a rug).

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Cockney Londoners developed a whole vocabulary from the rhyming imperative, though they abbreviated the result to throw people off the scent. To have a butcher's (from butcher's hook) was to have a look. Use your loaf (of bread) meant use your head. To rabbit (and pork) was to talk - the rhyme came with the accent - which is why blatherers are said to be rabbiting on.

Children have a phrase for the unexpected arrival of a rhyme: "I'm a poet and I didn't know it." As David Crystal observes in Words, Words, Words, they "sense the abnormality when we rhyme inadvertently." But for some of them as they age, the inadvertence turns to calculation. They can't help rhyming, just as a punster is incapable of not punning even after the smiles of his companions have turned to rictus grins.

"The moment a born-rhymer has chosen a word for the end of a line," Theodore Watts-Dunton wrote a century ago in Poetry and the Renascence of Wonder, "all the feasible rhymes in the language leap into his brain like sparks from a rocket." The end of a line? Who can wait that long? If born-rhymers waited for a line's end, we wouldn't have "no pain, no gain," or "bed head," or "made in the shade," or "If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'." We wouldn't have "zip your lip," or "no-tell motel," or "news you can use."

What's on the menu? Surf and turf. What's the economic outlook? Gloom and doom. What do cautious drinkers choose? Near-beer.

The Oxford Dictionary of Clichés says the impulse was alive in English as far back as 725, when "hither and thither" was a big hit. In Word Spy, Paul McFedries says a steep drop in the value of technology stock prices became known at the end of the 1980s as a tech wreck.

Musicians love rhyming titles. Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra recorded Loose Like a Goose in 1929. Benny Goodman and his orchestra recorded Killer-Diller in 1937. Hotsy-totsy, which means wonderful, was used in a catchy song circa 1980 by Toronto group Drastic Measures ("Everything's hotsy totsy/ Everybody's got someone to sleep with"), but it had popped up 55 years earlier in a record by the California Ramblers, Everything Is Hotsy Totsy Now. Hotsy was a cute way of saying hot, but it wouldn't have caught on without the nonsensical totsy as its partner.

"Something there is," Robert Frost wrote, "that doesn't love a wall." Maybe so. But a tall wall, or the fall of a wall in Gaul? That's a whole other story, Cory.

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