Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

English spelling, rhyme, rime, and reason

Alexander Pope, not a friend of hackneyed rhymes. Jonathan Richardson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The story of rhyme has been told more than once, but though both The OED and The Century Dictionary offer a detailed account of how the word acquired its meaning and form, it may be instructive to follow the discussion that occupied the intellectuals about a hundred and fifty years ago and some time later. To begin with, there is a rather infrequent English word rime “hoarfrost,” which has nothing to do with poetry. We are interested in the rhyme, as described in 1711 by the then twenty-two-year-old brilliant wit Alexander Pope: “They ring round the same unvaried chimes / with sure returns of still expected rhymes; / Where’er you find ‘the cooling western breeze’, / In the next line it ‘whispers through the trees.”

A few remarks about the etymology of rhyme are in order. At one time, it was believed that rhyme goes back to Old English rīm “number” (rīm, with its long vowel, must have sounded like today’s ream). Though Middle English rīm occurred as early as 1200 in the much-researched poem Ormulum, its meaning and origin are far from clear (see the end of this post!). Anyway, rīm1 (Old English) and rīm2 (Middle English) are different words. Orm, the author of Ormulum, lived in Danelaw and spoke a dialect, strongly influenced by Danish. According to the traditional opinion, Middle English rīm, which occurred most rarely, meant “rhyme,” and “was supplanted by the extremely common Old French rime,… identical in form and in original meaning, but used in Old French with the newly acquired sense of verse, song, lay, rhyme, poem, poetry,” to quote Walter W. Skeat.

Danelaw, where Orm lived and wrote his poem. Emery Walker, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the first edition of his great etymological dictionary, Skeat identified Old English rīm with Middle English rīm and derived rhyme from that word, but later he changed his opinion. It is now an established fact that rime, a borrowing of Old French rime, goes back to Medieval Latin rhythmus “rhythm.” This derivation poses the natural question about the difference between rhyme and rhythm, but before answering it, let us look at the word’s spelling.

In the eighteen-seventies, some linguists considered the spelling rhyme, with its h and y, foolish, because they rejected the analogy between English rhyme and Latin rhythmus (and its Greek source rhuthmós). The spelling rhyme goes back to Samuel Daniel, a once well-known poet, a contemporary of Shakespeare. Frederick James Furnivall, whose name is inextricably connected with the early stages of The Oxford English Dictionary, wrote in his 1873 discussion of Skeat’s spelling rime: “But as it seems to me a pity to re-introduce rime for A[nglo]-S[axon] [that is, Old English] rîm, when the hoar-frost rime had possession of the modern field, I adopted—as in private duty-bound—the spelling ryme of the best Chaucer manuscripts. And I think that any Victorian Englishman, who wants to cleanse our spelling from a stupid Elizabethan impurity, generated by ignorance and false analogy, should now spell either as Mr. Skeat or as I do.” The moral of the story is “make haste slowly.”

Elizabethan spelling is indeed nothing to admire or emulate, and today we are heirs to quite a few pseudo-learned monstrosities introduced in the sixteenth century, but by chance (from a historical point of view) rhyme is a correct form (which of course does not mean that it should be the one in use today!). This tug of war is known only too well: in spelling a modern language, should we be true to the word’s history or to its modern pronunciation? Unfortunately, neither principle can be followed quite consistently, as many fights about spelling reform in different countries have shown. The so-called iconic principle also plays some role, and here Furnivall was right: since the word rime “hoarfrost” already exists, it is better to do without its homograph.

Four random Victorian gentlemen. They never read Chaucer. CC0 via rawpixel.

But note the amusing reference to any Victorian Englishman. Furnivall had a rather low opinion of his male compatriots, and indeed one’s contemporaries, male or female, are sometimes hard to admire. He wrote: “No English gentleman would think of opening a book in the language, or deign to suppose that Chaucer wrote English, or could spell. And as to looking at any dictionary to know the history of a word, why, it’s plain nonsense. Evolve it out of your consciousness, and chaff anybody who appeals to recorded fact.” Do times change? Not being a Victorian gentleman, I can only register my surprise at a recent conversation with the students I have taught this year. They did not understand the word Lilliputian, and I said: “Why, it is from Gulliver’s first travel.” No one had read Swift or heard about Lilliputians, and no one had the remotest idea about the source of the now universally known word Yahoo.

Swift’s Lilliputians are much better known than some people think. Charles E. Brock, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

But back to etymology. I think the correct origin of rhyme would have come to light long ago if the German, French, and English researchers had been aware of the corresponding Russian word, which is rifma. Its odd-looking f owes its existence to th in Greek rhuthmós. In the word for “rhyme,” as we know it from the West-European languages, Greek th left no visible trace. Even so, it may cause surprise that “rhyme” goes back to a word meaning “rhythm.” The OED and other detailed dictionaries clarify the situation. Below, I’ll follow the exposition of The Century Dictionary.

Greek rhuthmós referred to many things, namely, “measured movement, time, measure, proportion, rhythm,” and “metrical foot.” The medieval Latin term, which continued into Old French, was applied especially to accentual verse, as distinguished from quantitative or classical verse, and came to denote verse with agreement of terminal sound, and in general any poems having this characteristic. The dictionary also adds that about 1550, with the increasing interest in classical models and nomenclature, English rime, ryme often came to be spelled rhime or rhyme, rithme of rhythme, and then rhithme or rhythme, the latter forms being at length pronounced as if directly derivatives of Latin rhythmus, from Greek ruthmós.

At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned the poem Ormulum (1200). Its author explained (in translation from Middle English): “I have written here in this book / among the words of the Gospel / all by myself many a word, / in order thus to fill the ríme.” The latest study of ríme, that is, rīme, in Ormulum, seems to have appeared in 2004 (Nordic Journal of English Studies 3, 63-73). It author, Nils-Lennart Johannesson, made a strong argument that Orm’s ríme was not a borrowing from Old French but derived from Old English and that, consequently, its sense in the poem is “story; text,” rather than “rhyme.” If this conclusion is valid, the earliest citation of the English word rhyme will disappear from our records. For students of English words and of English literature, this will be a significant conclusion.

However, one curious French trace of rhyme (among many others) will remain. The alliterating phrase neither rhyme nor reason does have a French source (navoir ni rime ni raison, sans rime ni raison). It has been around for many centuries, but I could not find its origin in French. Even its source in English (I mean the source, rather than the earliest attestation) is unknown: it looks like a coinage by some wit, “a familiar quotation.” But then once upon a time, all idioms and all words must have been individual coinages.

At this time of year, The Oxford Etymologist will take a traditional break and will reemerge on the second Wednesday of January 2024. A Happy New Year!

Feature image: Ms. Codex 196 English religious poems. Public domain, via the University of Pennsylvania, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Recent Comments

  1. Ian Ritchie

    “in spelling a modern language, should we be true to the word’s history or to its modern pronunciation?” I support the former and I suspect that Professor Liberman supports the latter. As an example, before 1917, the Russian word for rhyme was spelt риѳма and since 1917 рифма. The older orthography clearly showed the Greek origin of the word – of interest only to those who are interested in the origin of words, to be sure. Best wishes for the New Year! Ian

  2. Aurélien

    I don’t suppose this will help in any way find the origin of the phrase, but I’ve always understood “raison” in “sans rime ni raison” to have the meaning of English “ratio” rather than “reason”; “rime” and “raison” would then be a doublet with the same general sense of “measure, proportion”.
    On that Lilliputian contribution, I wish everyone a happy new year.

Comments are closed.