Image: Dr. Samuel Johnson
Rime vs Rhyme: The Unfortunate Error
The spelling of “rime” as “rhyme” entered the language because of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s mistake about the word’s origin. The error is now so pervasive that many editors will not allow a writer to use the original form.
Introduction: Laurence Perrine’s “Rime”
In 1956, Professor Laurence Perrine of Southern Methodist University began publishing a textbook, Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, which has never been out print, and it reached its 15th edition in 2017. In his first 9 editions, the professor employed the spelling “rime” in his discussion of that literary device.
With the 10th edition, the new editors, Thomas A. Arp and Greg Johnson, in their postmodern wisdom, have changed Professor Perrine’s spelling to “rhyme.”
In succumbing to this etymological error, Arp and Johnson, are repudiating the wisdom of such literary geniuses as William Shakespeare (Sonnets 16, 17, 32, 38, 55, 106) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner“) in Perrine’s classic work that has introduced several generations of students to poetry.
Unfortunately, these editors are not the only ones who are foisting this error upon the world of poetry. Many (more likely most) editors insist upon the erroneous spelling.
The Editorial Choic
While many, if not most, non-literary readers likely believe that the term “rime” refers only to a type of ice, too many poets, 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.
For many decades, editors and publishers have preferred Dr. Johnson’s error “rhyme” to the original clean spelling “rime.” For example, because I continue to employ the original spelling instead of the Johnsonian error on my poem commentaries at HubPages, I was required by the HubPage editors to offer the following disclaimer in my articles that use that term:
Please note: Dr. Samuel Johnson introduced the form “rhyme” into English in the 18th century, mistakenly thinking that the term was a Greek derivative of “rhythmos.” Thus, “rhyme” is an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form “rime,” please see “Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.”
While the soft-censorship editors of HubPages did allow my choice, they still insisted that I explain my seeming idiosyncrasy.
Prior to publishing my online written interview with poet and editor, Vince Gotera, I engaged in a pre-interview correspondence with the poet. In his message, he used the term three 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.
Unfortunately, Gotera’s attitude 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 to guess that his pride of stature as poet far exceeds in his mind and soul that of editor.
Poets used to be sticklers for accuracy of word and image—not for what the collective will think of their usage.
(Food for thought: Gotera also opined about poetry in general: “Writing is a political act even if you’re consciously trying ‘not’ to be political. So poetry can be … no, ‘must be’ … used for activism.”
While some might think the idea that poetry must promote activism is hogwash, others will remain true believers.
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, most noted for his 1755 classic work, A Dictionary of the English Language, who mistakenly thought the term, “rime,” was a Greek derivative of “rhythmos,” and therefore contended that the proper spelling should be based on that derivation.
Shakespeare Sonnets’ Use of “Rime”
Originally, in the Shakespeare sonnets, 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 error 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 world’s foremost literary 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”
Search engines point heavily toward the Coleridgian original spelling of “rime” in his classic work, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Some editors have succumbed to Johnsonian error—even a page from the Gutenberg Project uses “rhyme—but most editions of Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” keep the spelling “rime.”
How does Coleridge go relatively 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.
Why I Prefer Rime, Not Rhyme
As a poet, commentator, and seeker of truth and accuracy, I always opt for the spelling of “rime” for two basic reasons:
- I cannot in good conscience participate in the continuation of an error.
- 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.”
The unfortunate perpetuation of Johnson’s error will likely continue to liter the landscape of poetry with the ugly spelling, “rhyme,” while the clean, crisp spelling, “rime,” in my opinion, should be taking its proper place in the literary world of poetry.
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 writers who need to be published have no choice to board it too.
Also, I am aware that language does change over the centuries, but those changes are not usually based on errors; instead, they are based on convenience that shortens words instead of lengthening them and adding silent letters.
The following insightful suggestion is from a site, which has now disappeared; it suggested “11 spelling changes that would make English easier,” including 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)
Instead of those useful suggestions, the link now points to a bland site that promises an exploration of the English language. I suggest this disappearance further demonstrates the tyranny involved in the editorial use of “rhyme” instead of “rime.”
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.
Going forward, unless a rime scheme, or other use of rime, is a salient feature of the poem influencing meaning or aesthetics, I plan to ignore rimes and rime-scheme.
“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 choice of rime-over-meaning happens all too often, especially with postmodern 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 the postmodernists put an end to any 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 during those times in which I find it necessary to address the issue, I shall continue to use “rime” not “rhyme,” simply because it is the original and—to my mind—the accurate spelling.
- William Shakespeare. “Shakespeare’s sonnets: being a reproduction in facsimile of the first edition, 1609, from the copy in the Malone collection in the Bodleian library.” Sonnets 16, 17, 32, 38, 55, 106. Internet Archive. Accessed April 4, 2021.
- – – -. “Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Oxquarry Books Ltd. Accessed April 4, 2021.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed April 4, 2021.
- Pall Mall Gazette. “Rhyme, Ryme, or Rime.” New York Times. August 22, 1880.