Peter Piper and his pickled peppers: Our love for alliteration

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers; if Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked.

She sells seashells by the seashore.

English language speakers love alliteration.

We use it to do slapstick, such as the Peter Piper ditty above. When we were kids, we would say that and as a result, spit all over each other. It was terribly funny.

We use it to learn to pronounce words, as with the She sells . . . line. Say that quickly five or ten times, and see what happens. Chances are, you’ll learn to slow down when you’re speaking — at least for a sentence or two.

Mark Forsyth, of, and author of several books on the language, cites in his The Elements of Eloquence (pages 10-11) an example of William Shakespeare, our old friend, lifting a passage from Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives for some lines in Antony and Cleopatra. From North we get this description of Cleopatra’s boat:

. . . the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver . . .

Shakespeare takes that and makes it into these lines:

 . . . the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails and so perfumed that

The winds were lovesick with them . . .

And that’s not the only instance, Forsyth points out, even in that one passage.

Nobody knows why we love to hear words that begin with the same letter, but we do, and Shakespeare knew it.

Forsyth also says that alliterations don’t really have to make sense or even be accurate. Try these:

curiosity killed the cat

throw out the baby with the bathwater

right as rain

dead as a doornail

He’s got a point. We love it.

What’s your favorite alliteration?

See also:

William Shakespeare and the development of the English language

Shakespeare’s appearance, Eleanor’s mastery, and Cronkite’s broadcast – plus a new book giveaway: newsletter, March 2, 2018



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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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