2 October 2015


Since the first HaggardHawks post for BuzzFeed went up last week, it’s been viewed more than 300,000 times and, incredibly, has boosted the Twitter account past the 13,000 followers mark—so you can now pit your wits against the fourth HaggardHawks Quiz… But of all 53 language facts cherry-picked from the Haggard Hawks fact book for BuzzFeed, one has attracted far more attention than all the others put together: 

This fact actually went up on the Twitter account a few months ago (bonus fact: nothing rhymes with month either), and caused quite a stir back then too. But in the comments section over on BuzzFeed, the same debate has been sparked all over again:

So. Does nothing really rhyme with carpet? Exactly what does it take for two words to be classed as rhymes? And just how rare are unrhymable words anyway?

Well, as some commenters quite rightly pointed out, determining whether or not two words rhyme depends of course on your pronunciation, and what kind of rhyme you’re looking for. As a benchmark, rhyming dictionaries understandably limit themselves to one standard accent of English, and to finding only the most accurate and most straightforward form of rhymes, known as ‘perfect’ or ‘full’ rhymes—otherwise they’d be overflowing with words, pairs of words, and entire phrases that almost-but-not-quite rhyme with one another.

British English rhyming dictionaries tend to use standard Received Pronunciation as their basis, but naturally things are different elsewhere—that’s why American English rhyming dictionaries, based on General American pronunciation, will tell you that nothing rhymes with iron (pronounced /aɪərn/, with a noticeable R sound), aside from derivatives like gridiron and andiron, while British dictionaries (which give the pronunciation /ʌɪən/, without a heavy R) will quite happily tell you that it rhymes with a whole clutch of words, including the likes of lion, Ryan, O’Brien and Uruguayan. (Note to self: write a poem later about a Uruguayan lion named Ryan O’Brien.)

Regardless of your accent, however, seriously—nothing rhymes with carpet

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, for two words to form a perfect rhyme, the final stressed vowels in both words and all the sounds following them have to be identical. In the case of carpet (RP: /kɑːpɪt/, GM: /kɑɹpɪt/), the stressed vowel is the ar sound in the first syllable, which means that any word or words that we can safely say rhyme with carpet have to end with the full combination of sounds /-ɑːpɪt/, or /-ɑɹpɪt/. And in English, there just isn’t anything else that works.

Pet is too short (and is pronounced /pɛt/, not /pɪt/ or /pət/). While trumpet, armpit, basket, pulpitmarket, parapet, and all the other suggestions being thrown back and forward in the comments section don’t follow the same pattern, and so don’t quite fit the bill. Almost-but-not-quite rhymes like these are often labelled ‘slant’, ‘half’, or ‘imperfect’ rhymes, but by definition the consonants in a slant rhyme should remain the same, while the vowel sound varies (like hand and bend, or rhyme and Rome); market, trumpet and basket all just take too many liberties.

By far the best suggestion here is tar pit, which appears to match all of the phonological criteria required. The trouble is that both the Oxford English and Merriam-Webster Dictionaries list tar pit as two separate words—and if separate words are required to form a rhyme, then it’s no longer classed as a perfect rhyme but a ‘mosaic’ rhyme. After all, we could just as easily claim that car pit, star pit, sitar pit, or Jordanian dinar pit rhyme with carpet if we’re not fussed about ‘mosaicking’ words together.

There are, of course, lots of different forms of rhyming, and some intrepid poet will no doubt at some point have used the word carpet and quite happily (and successfully) rhymed it with armpit or parapet. (In fact, the stories behind two undeterred writers’ attempt to write a poem about a carpet and rhyming story about oranges are explained in Word Drops.) But so long as we’re drawing the line at perfect rhymes based on a standard pronunciation, then it’s true—nothing rhymes with carpet.

But just how rare are unrhymable words? Well, although a lot of words you might think have no rhyme actually do, the problem with limiting ourselves to perfect rhymes—which require the stressed vowel and everything after it to rhyme—is that the further back from the end of a word the stressed vowel is located, the more troublesome finding an appropriate rhyme for it becomes. 

So while a handful of monosyllabic words—like month, scarce, gouge and ninth—contain such a tricky combination of sounds that nothing else matches them, in polysyllabic words, as the stress shifts further and further back in the word (to the penultimate syllable, as in carpet, neutron or penguin, or even the antepenultimate, as in animal, dynamo or citizen), the rhyming element of the word (–arpet, –ynamo, –itizen) becomes longer and more complicated, and the chances of finding a perfect match for it diminishes. So potentially there are many hundreds, if not thousands, of unrhymable words in English—of which carpet is just one.

Now then. There once was a lion named Ryan. Whose passport was stamped Uruguayan...

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