Rhyming as Credibility: General Truths in Early Childhood

During the elementary school era of childhood in the United States, rhyming carries with it a certain authority. It gives the meaning behind words a type of magical credibility. Speaking in rhymed verse becomes a stand-in for truth-telling, lending the verse the authority it needs to go unchallenged. It can be used as a retort, an argument in and of itself. Rhyming verses are the aphorisms of childhood.

I’m still working through the mechanics of this phenomenon, but I’d be willing to posit that rhyming, and rhyming verses especially, occupy a privileged position in children’s language. Rhyming is a type of authoritative discourse. Consider a few examples:

  • Snitches get stitches
  • Sticks and stones may break my bones…
  • Easy cheesy/ Easy-peasy lemon squeezy

Each of these sayings are tossed about the playground like so many punch-balls, and even find their ways into the classroom and the mouths of adults who wish to speak on the child’s “level.” To reach them with an authority they will understand, master, and even be able to take ownership of. The easy-peasiness of it, if you will, provides children with a short-hand for the final word on a subject. A commonly held belief among their peers that cannot be challenged.

The rhyming appeals to the authority of truth, because the rhymes have been repeated, are ingrained into the consciousness of the average American school child. They hear these often from one another and the adults on positions of authority within knowledge production and dissemination. Even upon hearing a rhymed phrase for the first time, the fact that the phrase rhymes lends it an aura of believability.

Children repeat these things to one another ad nauseam. The phrases, by virtue of their rhyming qualities, are easier to remember, and thus more likely to be repeated. The repetition itself lends an element of truth–would these phrases be repeated so often if they weren’t true?

And so this becomes, if I remember correctly, an instance of second-order indexicality. The type of speech (rhyming verse) becomes a marker of the very quality from which it derives its power (truth). Or maybe I’ve been away from the text books too long and can’t remember how to use “second-order indexicality” correctly. Perhaps I’ve argued myself into a merry-go-round death-trap.

In any case, something is going on below the surface of these agonizingly trite childhood chants.

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Filed under Childhood, Wordplay

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