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The Poetry of Rhyming Compounds


Flap and zap, doom and gloom, cuff and stuff: the allure of rhyme in the workplace.

Rhyme gets a bad rap, partly because of bad rap—not to mention awful poetry, painful song lyrics, and crappy children’s books. For every Shakespeare, Dr. Seuss, or Chuck D, it seems like there are dozens of horrendous Hallmark cards and mediocre MCs. I can't be the only one who wishes Hammer had been just legit enough to quit.

So let’s set the record straight about rhyme. It’s a lot more than a fancy attachment or special effect of language: It’s common as dirt and just as fertile. In the linguistics journal American Speech, Wordnik co-founder Grant Barrett has assembled an impressive lineup of under-documented, in-use rhyming compounds such as “hats and bats,” “chalk and talk,” “hop and pop,” “mag and bags,” “mill and fill,” “splash and dash,” “sticks and bricks,” “churn and burn,” and “spray and pray.” Barrett’s work spotlights an aspect of language most folks probably take for granted, reminding us that rhyme is a deeply rooted feature of our vocabulary.

Many of Barrett’s finds are a mix of workplace jargon and smart-mouthy slang. Restaurant workers don’t appreciate when customers “chew and screw” or “eat it and beat it,” two terms with the same meaning as the alliterative “dine and dash." A less common version is “masticate and vacate.” Few would want a procedure advertised as the “flap and zap”—an eyesight-fixing surgery that reshapes the cornea. Then there’s “gag and tag,” which has meant both the treatment of terrorist suspects and the predictable placement of a joke before a product’s name in advertising. The naturalness of these rhymes has led to many being coined again and again for different purposes.

Another term with multiple meanings is “drill and kill,” which refers to a monotonous method of teaching children, a penetrating way of exterminating termites, and a ruthless approach to conducting job interviews, as well as something similar to the “top kill” method that failed in stopping the BP oil spill. If your child is frustrated with the ritual of show and tell, tell them about “drag and brag,” a term for similar boastful exploits, in school or elsewhere. Schools can be frightening institutions, but not as terrifying as prisons, where “hats and bats” (so-named for their headgear and weapons) may be called in to break up a riot. And if you’ve ever watched a cop show or had a misadventure with law enforcement, then you can probably figure out that “cuff and stuff” refers to the apprehension of a suspect by police, probably in a car whose lights inspired “cherries and blueberries”—a name for a cop car.

Sometimes these terms relieve tension for people involved in a grim situation, like hospital workers who must perform a “strip and flip”—the unpleasant task of prepping an unconscious patient for emergency care. More often, mockery is made. It’s unlikely that a serious-minded religious person would refer to church rituals as “smells and bells,” which is reminiscent of “bells and whistles,” a term not exactly brimming with reverence. “Spray and pray” has had several meanings—some related to insecticide, law enforcement, teaching, and journalism—but all convey an indiscriminate approach. Neither the baseball or football senses of “chuck and duck” are meant to applaud the chucker/ducker. Based on the evidence, I’d say a good way to ensure your endeavors are treated with gravitas is to make certain, perhaps through sorcery, that they can never, ever be described in rhyme.

Since Barrett’s column is called Among the New Words (which, under various editors, has been at the forefront of word-documenting since 1941), he didn’t cover terms that are already well-represented in dictionaries, such as “doom and gloom,” “wine and dine,” “meet and greet,” “surf and turf,” “wheel and deal,” and “shake and bake.” That phrase is the ancestor of “wake and bake”—early a.m. pot smoking—which Barrett drolly notes “...appears to be from 1990 or earlier. No doubt the idea is older still.” Fittingly, I first heard that expression in 1990 exactly, from my freshman-year roommate who was an expert in this area.

When I asked Barrett about the terms he collected, he highlighted their memory-enhancing function: “These compounds are at the intersection of utility and poetry. They stake out a spot in our memory and do a useful job, but they add color, too, by telegraphing an idiomatic sense. That is, they mean more than they say and by their playfulness we can get a hint at what is hidden."

What can’t be hidden is how people in every profession and way of life float their boats with rhyme, which—as Futurama’s Bender would say—is simply “fun on a bun.”

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