By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
It’s often said there aren’t any rhymes for the word ‘orange’. But in fact, there are barely any full rhymes for the word ‘people’, and let’s face it, the word ‘people’ is far more common and far more useful. Other colours than orange are available (indeed, for many centuries it wasn’t even used as the name for a colour, hence the glaringly inaccurate term ‘robin redbreast’), but how else can we talk about those members of the human race, to which so many of our family members belong?
Poets have undoubtedly been put off using ‘people’ at the end of a line of verse in a rhyming poem, because of the relative lack of good rhymes available. But there are a few possibilities, especially once we broaden our search to include pararhyme or half-rhyme.
Let’s take a look at some of the best rhymes for people and some of the best half-rhymes or pararhymes for people.
Full rhymes for ‘people’
The best-known full rhyme for ‘people’ in the English language is STEEPLE, as in the famous nursery rhyme:
Here’s the church
And there’s the steeple;
Open the door
And see all the people!
But other poets besides the anonymous author of this children’s rhyme have rhymed people and steeple to great effect. Here’s A. E. Housman’s short poem ‘Eight O’Clock’:
He stood, and heard the steeple
Sprinkle the quarters on the morning town.
One, two, three, four, to market-place and people
It tossed them down.
Strapped, noosed, nighing his hour,
He stood and counted them and cursed his luck;
And then the clock collected in the tower
Its strength, and struck.
And here’s Housman again, from the beginning of his poem ‘Hughley Steeple’:
The vane on Hughley steeple
Veers bright, a far-known sign,
And there lie Hughley people,
And there lie friends of mine.
Tall in their midst the tower
Divides the shade and sun,
And the clock strikes the hour
And tells the time to none.
A steeple, of course, is the tower of a church, though actually other buildings can have steeples: temples and various public buildings can also be said to have steeples if they have a tall tower as part of its structure.
But because of the ubiquity of the church/steeple children’s rhyme, you may think that people and steeple is too well-worn a rhyming pair. So what else is there?
SHEEPLE is perhaps older than one might expect: the Oxford English Dictionary or OED has a citation from 1945. Obviously the word is a blend (or portmanteau) of sheep and people, and is used to mean people who act or behave like sheep, i.e., they follow others and cannot think for themselves.
This may convince you that sheeple is not a good rhyme for people because, in being derived from it, it’s too close to people in meaning to give that necessary difference which makes many of the best rhymes. But then steeple has a fairly specific meaning. So where else can we go?
Well, there’s the word WHEEPLE: a rare word but one which has a more wide-ranging meaning than steeple. To wheeple means either to cry in a shrill manner or to whistle in a feeble manner; the sound it linked to the cry of the curlew or plover. The word has been used in Scotland since the early nineteenth century.
Since 2000, too, as the OED attests, the word MEEPLE has also been a possible rhyming word for ‘people’. It’s a term used in some board games, and defined as ‘a small figure, typically in stylized human form, used as a playing piece.’ It’s from ‘my’ and ‘people’, i.e., my playing pieces, and was first used in reference to the game Carcassonne.
Pararhymes or half-rhymes for ‘people’
Pararhyme is a little different from full rhyme, because, as its name suggests, it sits somewhere between full rhyme and no rhyme.
PURPLE is perhaps the best pararhyme for people because there is consonance (i.e., repetition of the same consonant sounds) both at the beginning and the ends of the two words: it’s only the middle vowel sound that differs.
Harry Baker even wrote a poem, ‘Paper People’, which plays on the similarities of the sounds of the two words, although his pararhyme is internal rather than at the ends of the verse lines.
But purple is a hard word just to drop into a poem, especially a serious one. And yet if we think of imperial purple, royal purple, and the many purple flowers from violets to lavender to wisteria, suddenly a number of poetic possibilities present themselves.
Sticking with purple, that’s one of those colours, like ‘orange’, which it’s often claimed has no rhyme in English. But there is a rhyme for ‘purple’, and a potential pararhyme for people, and that’s HIRPLE. It’s a Scottish and Northern English dialect term, a verb meaning ‘to walk with a limp’. So if you know several people who hirple …
APPLE, being a common word, is also a potential rhyme word for people, if we’re talking half-rhyme, and it needn’t only appear in ‘fruity’ poems: if you want to be more left-field with imagery you might talk about something being the colour of apple (‘apple white’ is, after all, a recognised paint tone, while the vivid reds and greens of apples provide further possibilities for colour-based metaphors and similes).
DAPPLE, a rhyme for apple, could serve as a nice pararhyme for ‘people’, as could STIPPLE, which has a similar meaning: both denote a spotted pattern on something, as Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem ‘Pied Beauty’ captured:
Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Dappled … couple … stipple: but Hopkins didn’t use people. Might there be space for it in some future poem?
If you wish to go really light-touch with your (para)rhymes and simply echo the central ‘ee’ sound and final ‘-le’ sound of people, other ‘rhymes’ suggest themselves: BEETLE, NEEDLE, FOETAL, EAGLE, LEGAL, and REGAL are all fairly common words which could work in a poem.