Best Rhyming Dictionary : The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes best rhyming dictionary compiled by Iona and Peter Opie and published by Oxford at the Clarendon Press in 1951, delves into the rich tapestry of 550 rhymes and songs that have been passed down through generations, enchanting young children for centuries.

This dictionary goes far beyond simply listing these beloved verses. Each entry embarks on a fascinating journey, delving into the rhyme’s individual history. We uncover its age, origins, and the captivating story of its first appearance in print or manuscript. The book meticulously traces the rhyme’s oral and written development, exploring its literary associations and the diverse social contexts in which it has been used. Intriguingly, the dictionary also explores variations of the rhyme across cultures, drawing parallels with similar verses in other languages.

Rhyming Dictionary

Concept of Nursery Rhymes

The term “nursery rhyme” appears to be a relatively recent invention, emerging around the 1820s. Previously, these rhymes were simply called “songs” or “ditties.” In the 18th century, collections often referred to them as “Tommy Thumb’s songs” or “Mother Goose’s,” with the latter term remaining popular in America. In England the verses are known as ‘nursery rhymes’ and in America as ‘Mother Goose songs’.  John Wilson parodied Hazlitt with an essay ‘On Nursery Rhymes in General’ In Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine for July 1824.

Despite their seemingly simple nature, nursery rhymes have achieved remarkable longevity. Professor Cammaerts suggests their musicality and inherent poetry are key factors in their enduring appeal. These short verses continue to be recognized and enjoyed even as more complex compositions fade from memory. The beauty of nursery rhymes lies in their simplicity and ability to please the ear. Lines like “Over the hills and far away,” as noted by G.K. Chesterton, hold a special charm within the broader landscape of English poetry.


These concepts of rhyme we can see in an appropriate way in this rhyming dictionary.

A History of Nursery rhyming dictionary

While the exact origins of nursery rhymes remain shrouded in mystery, thanks to the tireless efforts of collectors, we have a glimpse into their fascinating journey. The tradition of passing down nursery rhymes likely goes back centuries, with rhymes being passed down orally from generation to generation. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century that dedicated efforts were made to document them. Gammer Gurton’s Garland (1810) and The Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1824, 1842) were some of the earliest attempts in the rhyming dictionary to capture these rhymes.

A pivotal moment arrived in 1849 with the publication of Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales by James Orchard Halliwell. This comprehensive collection became a cornerstone for future anthologies, serving as a primary source for many English nursery rhymes. Despite Halliwell’s contribution, compiling nursery rhymes presented unique challenges. Distinguishing between truly traditional rhymes and those of recent invention proved difficult. Determining the origin and exact wording of orally transmitted rhymes added another layer of complexity.

A Poet's Playground: Unearthing Rhymes from History

The Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes the rhyming dictionary serves as a treasure trove for writers, offering a vast collection of rhyming partners for over 45,000 words. But where does this wealth of rhymes come from? The dictionary delves into the vibrant history of the English language, drawing upon a rich tapestry of sources to capture the evolution of rhyme.

For centuries, rhymes have served as the building blocks for creative expression. But where did these delightful word pairings come from? Look no further than the vibrant tapestry of history, where rhymes found fertile ground in a variety of sources. All source-type rhymes can be seen in this rhyming dictionary.

  1. Printed Ballads: These short, narrative poems, often set to music, were popular from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Ballad printers, keenly aware of the public’s love for catchy rhymes, employed them liberally. Simple rhymes like “love” and “dove” or “woe” and “foe” became ingrained in the popular consciousness, ready to be borrowed by aspiring poets and songwriters.
  2. Songbooks: Long before the age of streaming, songbooks were the go-to source for musical entertainment. These compilations often contained folk songs passed down through generations, as well as newly composed tunes. The prevalence of rhymes in these songs offered a blueprint for rhyme schemes, making it easier for budding musicians to create their catchy melodies.
  3. Stage Productions: From the bawdy plays of Elizabethan theatre to the elaborate musicals of today, the stage has been a breeding ground for rhymes. Playwrights understood the power of rhyme to add emphasis, humor, and memorability to their dialogue. Rhymes used in popular plays and musicals would often seep into everyday speech, further enriching the well of available rhymes.
  4. Folk Songs: Passed down orally for generations, folk songs are a treasure trove of rhyming techniques. Simple, often repetitive lyrics used everyday language with a heavy reliance on rhyme to ensure easy transmission from singer to singer. Folk songs offered a vast lexicon of rhymes based on the common experiences and observations of everyday life.
  5. The Mummers’ Play: This traditional folk drama, popular in Europe for centuries, featured characters with stock phrases and dialogue often delivered in rhyme. The predictable rhyming patterns provided a familiar and engaging framework for audiences, while also serving as a training ground for aspiring performers to hone their rhyming skills.
  6. Political Squibs: These satirical pamphlets and broadsides, popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, used sharp wit and biting humor to lampoon political figures and events. Rhyme played a crucial role in these squibs, making them catchy and memorable, thus amplifying their political impact. The clever use of rhyme in political squibs not only entertained but also offered a subversive way to spread dissent.

These are just a few of the many historical sources that have enriched the world of rhyme. By drawing upon these diverse sources, the Oxford Dictionary of Rhymes the rhyming dictionary offers a comprehensive and historically rich resource for anyone seeking to harness the power of rhyme. From the catchy refrains of ballads to the witty barbs of political squibs, the rhyming dictionary provides a springboard for writers to explore the multifaceted world of rhyme and create their unique compositions.

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Nursery Rhyme Pantomimes

Special classes of rhymes From The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes

Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes the rhyming dictionary doesn’t delve into exhaustive categories of rhymes, it likely covers some special classes of rhymes throughout its entries. Rhyme, the playful echo of sounds, adds a delightful dimension to language. But beyond the basic perfect rhyme (cat/hat), a whole world of special classes elevates communication in unique ways. In this dictionary, the editor presents all these special classes of rhymes. Special courses of rhymes from this rhyming dictionary-

Counting Out Rhymes: These rhythmic chants help with selection, often used in games like hopscotch or choosing who’s “it.” Here, perfect rhyme reigns supreme, creating a catchy sing-song quality. Like

Hana,mana,mona ,mike,

Barcelona, bona, strike

Hare, ware, frown, Venac,


The simplicity allows for easy memorization and adds a layer of fun to the selection process.


Riddles: Rhyme becomes a tool for intrigue in riddles. The familiar rhythm of a rhyme scheme (often AABB) lulls the listener into a sense of comfort, only to be surprised by the riddle’s twist. For example, “I have cities, but no houses; I have mountains, but no trees; I have water, but no fish; What am I?” (A map). The rhyme sets up an expectation, and then the answer subverts it, making the “aha!” moment all the more satisfying.

Infant Amusements: Rhyme plays a crucial role in capturing a child’s attention. Nursery rhymes like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “Hickory Dickory Dock” use simple, often perfect rhymes. The predictability of the sounds is calming for young minds, while the sing-song nature makes them easy to learn and repeat. Additionally, these rhymes often incorporate actions (“Here we go round the mulberry bush”), further engaging a child’s developing motor skills.

Lullabies: The gentle sway of rhyme weaves a spell of comfort in lullabies. Perfect rhymes and a soothing rhythm create a sense of security and peace. Songs like “Rock-a-bye Baby” and “Hush Little Baby” use repetition of rhyming sounds to lull a child to sleep. The predictability allows the child to relax and drift off, while the soft melody creates a calming atmosphere.

From the playful selection of games to the thoughtful puzzles of riddles, and from the joy of nursery rhymes to the serenity of lullabies, rhyme adds a layer of delight and purpose to our communication, especially when used in these special ways. All that playful selection we can see in this rhyming dictionary.

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Scope of the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes

This volume is a culmination of everything we know about these delightful verses, interwoven with the fruits of original research undertaken specifically for this project. Nearly one hundred illustrations bring the journey to life. Reproductions of early appearances of the rhymes in ballad sheets and music books adorn the pages, offering a glimpse into the evolution of nursery rhyme illustration within children’s literature over the past two centuries.


The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes the rhyming dictionary is a remarkable achievement – an “immensely important study,” as some have declared, of a subject that, while seemingly trivial, holds a profound place in our cultural heritage. This book is destined to become a cornerstone of Oxford scholarship, a treasure trove for scholars and parents alike, and a guaranteed source of delight for anyone who cherishes the enduring magic of nursery rhymes.

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