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Reference Book Review: Espy, Willard R. (2001). Words to Rhyme With: For Poets and Songwriters. Checkmark Books: ISBN
By Sarah Zabel
November 3, 2002

For the insomniacs among us who occupy our minds - and our nights - with running through the alphabet trying to rhyme with words like orange and purple, here is a book to add to the reference shelf. Words to Rhyme With is not just a dictionary of rhymes, but a primer for poets and an anthology of light verse from noted poet, Willard R. Espy.

This second edition was published posthumously by Louise M. Espy, two years after her husband, Willard Espy died. Words to Rhyme With captures his playful spirit, his keen ear for rhyme, his unconventional sense of rhyming rules, and his love of language. It is no less than a herd of words. Espy amassed this collection from four other rhyming dictionaries, four traditional dictionaries, his own reading, and three other reference books, including Words (Dickson), Mrs. Byrne's Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words (Byrne), and Hobble-de-hoy, The Word Game for Geniuses (Seymour).

Before embarking on the rhyming adventure, Espy had written twelve other books and published articles in the Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine, and The Nation.

Words to Rhyme With has a huge scope of rhyming words in the English language, as well as a sprinkling of obsolete, foreign, and colloquial words. While Espy does include a glossary of the rarest rhyming words in the back, it is limited. Of the more than 80,000 words that rhyme, the glossary only lists 9,000 of the more "eccentric" ones (words that could not be found in consulting several collegiate dictionaries.) So unless you have also digested the contents of several collegiate dictionaries in your sleepless nights, you are well-advised to have a dictionary as a bed-side companion, too. The glossary does provide pronunciation, a brief definition, and the background of the word (i.e. slang, Scottish).

Espy's book, Words to Rhyme With, is an indispensable resource to support English and creative writing courses in an undergraduate library, as well as any word lover's private collection. It is not only a useful reference tool for aspiring and professional poets and songwriters, but for the freshman star-crossed lover as well. The "Primer of Prosody" which precedes the rhyming dictionary is an imaginative introduction to verse that could charm the most stubborn word worm. Espy demystifies rhyme and meter, the stanza, the metric line, and 29 different forms of lyric verse - including the haiku and the clerihew. The book includes over 215 of Espy's own light verse in which he demonstrates how to perform a lyrical miracle.

Unfortunately, using this rhyming dictionary effectively may take a miracle as well. While browsing Espy's text can be fun and entertaining, intentional searching for and retrieving a specific word is cumbersome. The rhyming dictionary is organized into three sections: Single, double, or triple syllabic rhymes, and the entries are spelled phonetically. While this system makes logical sense to the creator and the seasoned user, it is difficult to navigate in the beginning.

Words to Rhyme With includes a much-needed pronunciation guide for those of us who unlearned phonetic spelling in the first grade. For a successful search, the user needs to be well-versed in the differences between Ä, Â, A, and A. Regrettably, the pronunciation guide is only listed in the beginning of the rhyming dictionary, so a user may want to permanently plant a bookmark or a thumb in that place to facilitate more successful searches. Here is a search example: To find rhyming words for Dewey, one can look up OO E in the double rhymes section, which lists citations such as CHOOE…chewy, FOOE…phooey, and HOOE…hooey, hui. It also has the notation: "see UE", which provides more citations: Including STUE…stewey, THUE…thewy, and KABLUE….kablooey. However, one can also search rhyming words for Dewey in the single rhyme section, simply under E, and retrieve totally different information.

Unfortunately, the physical format is not conducive to rapid recall, either. The major phonetic headings are written in only a slightly-larger bold font than the subsets, which makes it difficult to find entries quickly. Thankfully the margins are significantly wide enough, though, to promote spontaneous prose in a private edition or for copying pages to prove the existence of a word to a colleague.

Words to Rhyme With also features three appendices which list words that end with
"-mancy", "-mania", and "-phobia". These lists are great for general amusement and edification. Who knew there were words in our language like:

  • yakomania (yak''ni.a): a chattering of youngsters -and older people, too;
  • alphabetophobia (al'''bi.a): fear of things in alphabetical order;
  • bozophobia (bo''bi.a): fear of blind dates; and
  • oompahpahphobia (oom''bi.a): fear of German marching bands.

It may very well be that this reference book is not so much a tool, but an inspiration for writing verse. While its organization and format are not intuitively useful to the casual user, its range of words is a critical resource for people who work and write in rhyme. It is also a magical journey for anyone who simply has time to play with the English language.

And if you're still up nights trying to find a rhyme for orange, here is Espy's contribution:

The Unrhymable Word: Orange

The four eng-
wore orange
(Espy, 2001)

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