Thursday, December 2, 2010

Mr Browning, what rhymes with Timbuktu?

It is related that the 19th century poet Robert Browning boasted he could make a poem to rhyme with any word. A man at his London club challenged him: What about Timbuktu?

    Once a Cassowary
        in Timbuktu
    Ate a missionary
        and his hymn book too.

Missionary needs to be said as “mission airy”. A Cassowary, since you ask, is an ostrich-like bird native to New Guinea; hence unlikely to be found in Timbuktu.  The word rhyme has an interesting history.  Until the 17th century it was written rime, derived from Old French.  My English teacher, Mr Dumbreck, told us that it was changed to rhyme due to false etymology, associating it with rhythm (of Greek origin).  However the OED says that ultimately the English word rime and the Greek word rhythm do have the same source, so perhaps Mr Dumbreck was a little too severe.

1 comment:

  1. I did once see one of the few remaining cassowaries in Northern Queensland, where I the environment must be similar. Our guide had left us paddling in a creek in the rainforest when a cassowary and baby appeared quietly on the opposite bank. Magic! They can be vicious but I felt safe because of the intervening water. At the time I remember thinking I had heard of a poem with the word in. Now I know.