Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error
Dr. Samuel Johnson
In the late Laurence Perrine’s time-tested textbook, Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, which has introduced several generations of students to poetry, Professor Perrine employed the spelling “rime” for the term that signals that two words sound nearly the same.
Perrine’s textbook is in its fourteenth edition. I can attest that with the 9th edition and back through to the first, Perrine used the term "rime"—not rhyme. After Perrine’s death, Professor Thomas Arp took up the task of updating the text, and then Greg Johnson took the mantle from Arp. I assume that Arp and Johnson continued to use the same spelling employed by his mentor, but I have not seen copies of the 10th through 14th editions. (If anyone has information either confirming that continued use or if Arp and Johnson have now begun using "rhyme" instead of "rime," I would very much appreciate a report.)
Origin of the Term "Rhyme"
From the Old English, "hrim," the term had become "rime" in Middle English, the time of Geoffrey Chaucer. The term remained "rime" through Shakespeare’s time, on through the Victorian era, until the 19th century. English printers then started spelling the perfectly fine term, "rime," as the erroneous,"rhyme."
Those misguided printers were led astray by Dr. Samuel Johnson, who mistakenly thought the term was a Greek derivative of "rhythmos," and therefore contended that the proper spelling should be based on that derivation.
In the Shakespeare sonnets, originally, the spelling was always "rime," as the first published edition in 1609 attests. Of course, the sonnets were composed two centuries before the Johnsonian spelling was introduced into the lexicon.
Unfortunately, nowadays, readers will find that many editors have altered the spelling of Shakespeare to comply with the good doctor's error. Shakespeare! The genius, the bard for all time—modern editors think they are equipped to correct the spelling of the most admired poet of the Western world.
Coleridge’s "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
If one google’s "Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," one is accosted with this bit of information:
And when one clicks the "rhyme" title, one finds no authentic text of that poem. All of the authoritative texts, including those featured at Poetry Foundation, bartley.com, and poets.org, present Coleridge’s original, spelling, "rime."
How does Coleridge go unscathed, but Shakespeare gets corrected? Coleridge’s title was not indicating a type of ice; it was referring metonymically to the poem itself whose 626 lines are displayed in an ABAB rime scheme.
The Editorial Choice
Those editors who refuse to return to the original spelling of "rime" are victims of the lemmings mentality. They do it because so many other editors have done so. They do it so they can continue to publish among those others who have published. Truth and honesty get lost in the push to publish at all costs. It reminds one of the old adage: "Would you jump off a cliff because everybody else is doing it?" Well, yes, if you are a lemming!
Yes, of course, they would and they do. And the error continues to spread. Writers, even poets, are now content to employ the Johnson spelling. In my online, written interview with poet and editor, Vince Gotera, he poet used the term four times all spelled, "rhyme." When I queried his usage, suggesting that that usage was derived from an error, he simply shrugged it off, implying that getting published and understood by the majority of readers is more important than historical accuracy of individual words.
Gotera’s attitude, of course, sums up the attitude of most editors regarding this issue. Mind you, Gotera is also a poet, not just an editor, but in this case the editor’s hat sat more firmly than the poet’s, even though I would venture the guess that his pride of stature as poet far exceeds in his mind and soul that of editor. And poets are usually sticklers for accuracy of word and image.
Why I Prefer Rime, Not Rhyme
As a poet, editor, and seeker of truth and accuracy, I always opt for the spelling of "rime" for two basic reasons: (1) I cannot in good conscience participate in the continuation of an error. (2) A basic rule of all written discourse calls for brevity in use of language: day-one writing instruction will deliver the admonition, never use a big word, when a small one will work as well, and never employ two words when one will work.
Compare by sight the two terms: rime and rhyme. The former is crisp, clear, four letters without one superfluous mark. The latter has one more letter, a silent "h," and a "y" resting in place where the more convenient and identically pronounced "i" should reside. "Rime" is simply the better choice than the bulky "rhyme."
Awkward Rhyme, Crisp Rime
While many, if not most, non-literary readers believe that the term "rime" refers only to a type of ice, too many writers, printers, editors, and publishers insist on the altered spelling of that perfectly good English word. Of course, some editors will consider the term interchangeable, but many actually demand that the awkward "rhyme" be used.
The unfortunate perpetuation of an error continues to liter the landscape of poetry with the ugly spelling, "rhyme," while the clean, crisp spelling, "rime," should be taking its proper place in that literary landscape.
Insults for My Opinion
I have received many insulting messages, advising me on how stupid I am to be taking the originalist position on this term. Yes, I understand the point that because the error is so entrenched, it would cause untold heartache to try to buck it. As I have mentioned above, so many editors have boarded this train, that well, poor writers have no choice but to board it too.
Also, I am aware that language does change over the centuries, but those changes are not usually based on errors; they are based on convenience that shortens words instead of lengthening them and adding silent letters.
For example, check out this site, "11 spelling changes that would make English easier," which offers suggestions for changing certain English words that would make them easier to spell and use. And while you're at it, notice the following:
6. rhyme to rime
Poetry and music lovers know how much trouble this word can cause. With y taking the role of a vowel and h making a ghostly appearance, the word rhyme would be greatly improved by the alternate spelling rime. In fact, rime was the original spelling of the word, changed in the 17th century by association with the Latin word rhythmus. (my emphasis added)
A Diminishing Device
Poetry has long ceased to rely heavily on the poetic device known a "rime." And even as I comment on earlier poems that do employ that device, I am not required to speak about that particular issue. And likely that will be my going forward procedure—to simply ignore "rime-schemes," unless they are a truly salient feature of the poem that affects meaning or aesthetics.
"Rime" has long been my least favorite poetic device because it has so often been employed in ways that blur meaning rather than clarify it. When choosing a "rime" word becomes more important than choosing a more exact word for its meaning, then the poem suffers.
I believe that situation happens all to often, especially with contemporary poetry. Masters like the Shakespeare writer, Emily Dickinson, and James Weldon Johnson have been able to use "rime" masterfully to enhance rhythm as well as meaning. But postmodernism put an end to serious focus and genuine aesthetics in literary works.
So in the long run, I concede that the issue is not worth staging a full on campaign to alter minds, hearts, and usage. But I shall continue to use "rime" not "rhyme" simply because it is the original and—to my mind—the accurate spelling.
Questions & Answers
Is English a Romance language, like French?
No, English is a Germanic language like German, although English does employ many Latin cognates. But the basic grammatical forms are Germanic.Helpful 3
When did Samuel Johnson live?
Dr. Samuel Johnson lived from 1709 to 1784.
How likely is it that the original spelling of "rhyme" will ever become widely used?
Not very. The art of poetry itself is becoming more and more insular. It is unlikely that editors will ever care enough about such an arcane issue that they would encourage a change in the prevailing spelling.
Did Samuel Johnson study Greek?
Dr. Johnson was quite a learned man; he studied both Latin and Greek, and his translations from those languages remain extant. The status of the man's erudition makes it quite puzzling how he could have made such a grievous error and should alert scholars that they might want to remain vigilant in accepting the verity of other issues the good Dr. addressed.
© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes