Thursday, January 26, 2012

Masculine/Feminine Rhyme: Who Knew?

Just when you thought it was safe to break out your rhyming dictionary (or start running all your rhyming endings alphabetically through your head), someone tells you there's gender to contend with in the rhymes you write. What's up with that? After all, the last time you paid any attention to linguistic gender was Spanish class in the ninth grade---or was it when you ordered that beer during Spring Break in Puerto Vallarta?

No matter. The last place you thought gender would be an issue had to be rhyme, right? Well, fear not. It's not quite as problematic as you may anticipate. In fact, except that someone back in the day must have thought structural endings and sounds ought to be classified according to gender, it's unlikely that anyone would even notice. But just out of curiosity, it might be fun to try and sleuth out who among the ancients decided gender was important---and why.

So, where did the whole gender in rhyme thing originate? Did the early Chinese rhymers grapple with gender in their day? Although some of the oldest surviving Chinese poetry contains lyric aspects, because the written language is character based, any gender association to poetic form may be difficult to tease out. Left with that uncertainty, is the male-female poetic structure primarily western in origin? Could it simply be a non-functioning, vestigial "leftover" from Old Latin which etched its subtle tracks on the English language as romantic entanglements ebbed and flowed across Europe?

According to one source in the English Department at Carson-Newman College, ( the word "rhyme" itself originates "from Old French, rime meaning 'series,' in turn adopted from Latin 'rithmus' and Greek 'rhythmos'." Given some of the other gender assignments in Greek and Latin, might we ascribe gender features to the rhyming verses penned by the early Greeks and Romans?

No doubt, the definition of gender in rhyme could probably be argued until the cows come home, with a break taken only for milking before the debate starts again. As is true with virtually any sorting out of why words in any language might be classified as masculine versus feminine, rhymes are no different. One thing seems clear: at least in English, gender in rhyme seems to have little or nothing to do with the gender rules found in some romance languages.

That is, whether a line of verse in English ends in an "a" or "o" or other gender laden vowel or consonant, doesn't really matter as much as it does in the Spanish language. And speaking of word endings, despite its compromise value in the Italian language, the use of a neutral vowel (such as the letter "i") at the end of the plural form of both masculine and feminine words is not a gender-driven issue in English rhyme. But you have to admire the logical recognition of not being able to sort out gender in groups.

In the French language, the definition suggests line ending words which end in "e" are feminine and those that don't are masculine. Some sources also refer to "e" endings and unaccented ending syllables as being weak. Although I was a French major in college, I'll leave the "why" of those "differences" to others who know far more about the origins of the French language and who don't mind getting their shins kicked.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, although the reasoning might be debatable, the rules regarding gender in English rhyme are remarkably clear. According to the Collaborative International Dictionary of English, a female rhyme has a rhyming set in which the rhyming lines end in double-syllable words (ego, amigo). A male rhyme, on the other hand, is one where only the last syllable in the line endings agree (stand, demand). No doubt you have noticed the difference in where the stress is placed---keep reading.

The definitions are extended slightly in Brande and Cox (A Dictionary of Science, Literature and Art): "A rhyme, in which the final syllables only agree (strain, complain) is called a male rhyme; one in which the two final syllables of each verse agree, the last being short (motion, ocean), is called female." Simply stated, male rhymes end in words (often single syllable) where the final syllable in each line is accented. Female rhymes end in words where at least the last two syllables in the line match and the final syllable is unaccented.

In the spirit of using three or more sources, defines female (or more correctly feminine) rhymes as: "a rhyme either of two syllables of which the second is unstressed (double rhyme), as in motion, notion, or of three syllables of which the second and third are unstressed (triple rhyme), as in fortunate, importunate." In their turn, male (or masculine) rhymes are defined as: "a rhyme between stressed monosyllables or between the final stressed syllables of polysyllabic words: book, cook; collect, direct."

You won't have to look very far to find a purely male rhyme, for example in "The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Colridge:

"Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink."

Finding female rhymes is a little more challenging. But they can be found, such as in Sonnet 20 "A Woman's Face With Nature's Own Hand" by William Shakespeare (gotta love the iambic pentameter):

A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;

Notably, many if not most rhymes contain both feminine and masculine rhyming sets. Often the combination is seen in the same verse in either an A/A, B/B or an A/B, A/B rhyming sequence. At other times as the entire verse may be either masculine or feminine. Whether standing alone or in combination, rhyme has clearly established itself as much more than doggerel---to be covered in another post.

By the way, I should say that I am completely unqualified to judge whether the differences in a rhyme's gender have anything to do with the comparative complexity of either the line endings or their namesakes. Nor will I make a judgement as to why women prefer piles of pillows on the sofa while men would generally be OK sitting on a stump---make that a reclining stump. Yet it is a great deal of fun to use the variations in line endings, whether in gender terms or any other terms, as a creative basis for studying and writing rhyme.

Besides, it's a great conversation starter at parties if only because rhyming gender is no doubt rarely used---until now, that is....


  1. I was an English major, but never thought about the difference between masculine and feminine rhymes. Maybe the feminine one is longer because women are more complex. ;-)

  2. You could be on to something, Janet. One syllable to accent at the end of each line works for me....

    I'm thinking my plan to market my reclining stump furniture line should be mostly targeted at males... but I could be wrong....

  3. Really enjoyed reading this except for finding I've had it wrong all my life...well, no, not exactly. Never thought about it till I was teenage,,,
    I had the masculine rhymes right--strong,indubitable end rhymes. No arguing with those.
    But I thought the feminine ones were a bit wobbly and indeterminate..e.g. passion and potion...never quite right.
    Absolutely delighted to find they're more extended and complicated...rambling on forever :-)
    And I'm definitely not buying into the reclining stump furniture, Bill. Think you're right there too. LOL

  4. Bill, I enjoyed reading this great post. Good food for thought on a Saturday morning. Gender, of course, defines us all, even and maybe especially, in poetry!


  5. Annie and Nancy, thanks for giving this a read and for your comments. I might be interesting to do a study of rhymes written by male and female poets to see if there is any link between the poet's gender and the line endings they use. But often rhymes are mixed (masculine and feminine endings in the same rhyme) or there is variation from one rhyme to the next. And then there's the intersection of meter and the line endings.

    Kind of wonder how the line beginnings got left out of the gender discussion---whether a line begins with an accented or unaccented syllable.... Another question to ponder, right after I get that stump out of my front yard....

  6. Wow! I've never heard of masculine/feminine rhymes before.

    Truly fascinating!


  7. :-) Your allusion to pillows and stumps made me laugh! I've always liked feminine rhymes but have to admit that I never consciously think/thought of "t'others" as masculine - how sexist of me!

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  9. +Janet... that may be true!