“Forgotten Words Are Mighty Hard to Rhyme”

Quoth I to me, “A chant royal I’ll dite,
With much ado of words long laid away,
And make windsuckers of the bards who cite
The sloomy phrases of the present day.
My song, though it encompass but a page,
Will man illume from April bud till snow —
A song all merry-sorry, con and pro.”
(I would have pulled it off, too, given time,
Except for one small catch that didn’t show:
Forgotten words are mighty hard to rhyme.)

Ah, hadavist, in younghede, when from night
There dawned abluscent some fair morn in May
(The word for dawning, ‘sparrowfart,’ won’t quite
Work in here) — hadavist, I say,
That I would ever by stoopgallant age
Be shabbed, adushed, pitchkettled, suggiled so,
I’d not have been so redmod! Could I know? —
One scantling piece of outwit’s all that I’m
Still sure of, after all this catch-and-throw:
Forgotten words are mighty hard to rhyme.

In younghede ne’er a thrip gave I for blight
Of cark or ribble; I was ycore, gay;
I matched boonfellows hum for hum, each wight
By eelpots aimcried, till we’d swerve and sway,
Turngiddy. Blashy ale could not assuage
My thirst, nor kill-priest, even. No Lothario
Could overpass me on Poplolly Row.
A fairhead who eyebit me in my prime
Soon shared my donge. (The meaning’s clear, although
Forgotten words are mighty hard to rhyme.)

Fair draggle-tails once spurred my appetite;
Then walking morts and drossels shared my play.
Bedswerver, smellsmock, housebreak was I hight —
Poop-noddy at poop-noddy. Now I pray
That other fonkins reach safe anchorage —
Find bellibone, straight-fingered, to bestow
True love, till truehead in their own hearts grow.
Still, umbecasting friends who scrowward climb,
I’m swerked by mubblefubbles. Wit grows slow;
Forgotten words are mighty hard to rhyme.

Dim on the wong at cockshut falls the light;
Birds’ sleepy croodles cease. Not long to stay …
Once nesh as open-tide, I now affright;
I’m lennow, spittle-ready — samdead clay,
One clutched bell-penny left of all my wage.
Acclumsied now, I dare no more the scrow,
But look downsteepy to the Pit below.
Ah, hadavist! … Yet silly is the chime;
Such squiddle is no longer apropos.
Forgotten words are mighty hard to rhyme.

— Willard R. Espy


In the 1960s, linguist Robert M.W. Dixon met Albert Bennett, one of the last native speakers of Mbabaram, a vanishing Australian Aboriginal language of north Queensland. “You know what we call ‘dog’?” Bennett said to him. “We call it dog.”

“My heart sank,” Dixon wrote. “He’d pronounced it just like the English word, except that the final g was forcefully released.” He worried that Bennett’s decades of using English had tainted his understanding of Mbabaram.

But Bennett’s assertion was accurate: The Mbabaram word for dog is dúg, which is pronounced nearly identically to the English word, “a one in a million accidental similarity of form and meaning in two unrelated languages,” Dixon wrote.

“It was because this was such an interesting coincidence, that Albert Bennett had thought of it as the first word to give me.”

(Robert M.W. Dixon, Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker, 1984.)

Packing Numbers

Leonard Gordon noted this interesting pattern in the May 1995 issue of Word Ways. The English names of the first eight positive integers (ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, FIVE, SIX, SEVEN, EIGHT) contain altogether 32 letters. The smallest rectangular grid into which they can all be packed, word-search fashion, is 5×5. Because some of the cells serve double duty, the 32 letters “fit” into 25 cells; the ratio of these values is 1.28. This ratio remains remarkably consistent as the list of numbers is extended — here are grids for the first 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 numbers:

E I G H T   O N E E R H T   E I G H T F   E L E V E N S   S E V E N O W T
F O U R W   S E V E N I N   F   X   W O   I   F S O I E   F I V E E R H T
X I S   O   E I G H T W O   N I N E O U   G   O I T N V   O G X N E N I N
S E V E N   F O U R X I S   S E V E N R   H W U X V E E   U H E V L E W T
T H R E E                   T H R E E     T H R E E E N   R T N E V E L E
 8 words     9 words        10 words      11 words        12 words
32 letters  36 letters      39 letters    45 letters      51 letters
25 cells    28 cells        30 cells      35 cells        40 cells
(1.28)      (1.29)          (1.30)        (1.29)          (1.28)

Alas, the last one isn’t optimal, Gordon notes. The names ONE through TWELVE will fit into a more compact grid:


… and that raises the ratio to 1.42 letters per cell.

(Leonard Gordon, “Packing the Cardinals,” Word Ways 28:2 [May 1995], 116.)

Problem Solved

In 1991, botanist John L. Strother was reviewing the classification of North American sunflowers when he identified a new genus. By this time his 100-page monograph was in the final stages of proofing, and adding a new entry in the middle would require troublesome changes in the layout.

The genera were listed alphabetically, and the last one was Zexmenia. So Strother named the new genus Zyzyxia. Since this placed the new entry near the end of the article, it minimized the necessary changes, and the editor accepted the addition.

Words and Motion


In a 1778 letter, English naturalist Gilbert White captured the characteristic movement of almost 50 birds:

Owls move in a buoyant manner, as if lighter than air … herons seem incumbered with too much sail for their light bodies … the green-finch … exhibits such languishing and faltering gestures as to appear like a wounded and dying bird … fernowls, or goat-suckers, glance in the dusk over the tops of trees like a meteor; starlings as it were swim along.

Biographer Richard Mabey writes, “What is striking is the way Gilbert often arranges his sentence structure to echo the physical style of a bird’s flight. So, ‘The white-throat uses odd jerks and gesticulations over the tops of hedges and bushes’; and ‘woodpeckers fly volatu undosu [in an undulating flight], opening and closing their wings at every stroke, and so are always rising or falling in curves.”

(From Mabey’s Gilbert White: A Biography of the Author of The Natural History of Selborne, 2007.)