There was a young man from Kent...


Most people do not resort to a dictionary for a good laugh. They are usually looking to find what a word means. They want clarity, objectivity and authority.

But not retired printer Barry Nordin.

The Warwick resident is one of a growing number of limerick fans who believes that a dictionary should be a source of humor as well as guidance and, in that vein, he has joined the

Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form (OEDILF), a group of language lovers who describe themselves as one of the oddest literary projects in the history of poetry.

“We have all grown up with limericks,” said Nordin, “but mostly they were the kind you can’t print. I’m afraid those are still my favorite limericks but the idea of taking common words and technical terms and putting them into limerick form appealed to me.”

The website of the OEDILF owes, or more accurately blames, the Oxford English Dictionary for its existence:

“If you have had any experience with the Oxford English Dictionary [OED], you are familiar with its astonishing size and depth of coverage of the English language. No one comes close to the OED as far as thoroughness is concerned.”

People who have had that experience will tell you that it is, from its earliest edition to its latest, one of the largest reference works in the world and certainly the largest in the English language; the 1933 edition ran to 13 volumes, each volume of which is the size and shape of the so-called Collegiate editions of Webster’s Dictionary.

According to its publishers, the complete 1989 edition contains 301,100 main entries and 2,412,400 quotations as examples of those entries taken from everyday sources, such as books, magazines and newspapers.

“And yet, it's not the most readable of books, is it?” asks the OEDILF. “Plot lines, character development, underlying themes ... all these and more are sadly missing from the OED. All things considered, it’s not exactly the kind of book you curl up with in bed on a brisk winter's evening.”

As you may have surmised by now, the OEDILF is exactly out to replace the authority of the OED. They want to present an alternative to that intimidating agglutination of the English language.

“We wanted to make the OED more reader-friendly,” says the OEDILF, “and what is the most reader-friendly of all forms of writing? Why, the limerick, of course! To this end, our goal was to rewrite the entire OED in limerick form. A tall order? Yes, admittedly it was, but when we began, we had hoped, with your assistance, to have completed this project before our grandchildren were all dead.”

Good luck with that. The OED was started in 1857 and appeared in print for the first time as a series of imprints in 1884 with a title that is far too long an academic. It has been revised a number of times since and its editors have continuously collected material for subsequent editions since 1857. So, the members of the OEDILF (pronounced “oh-DIFL) should be composing notes to their descendants why they haven’t finished it yet. It went online in 2004 and has not gotten through the letter “E” yet. Essentially the brainchild of Chris J. Strolin, its founder and editor-in-chief, Strolin has not really closed the door on further definitions within the A to E. More problematic is the fact that even from A to E, there is still more room for further limericks and even as Strolin insists that entries be “spot on” as definitions, it’s easy to see that there is a lot of leeway allowed, with the ingenuity of the limerick taking preference over literal meaning, such as the one for “bay window”:

"We've got to proceed with all haste
To get your bay window replaced."
(But his living room view
Was as good as when new.
What she meant was his 60-inch waist.)

The ingenuity here is that it does include two senses of the phrase bay window, but someone whose primary language is other than English wouldn’t learn much about what a bay window looks like, or why it’s called a bay window and why it has come to mean a pot belly to American ears.

That may have been one of the reasons the editors of the OED sent lawyers to insist that its first incarnation as “the Oxford English Dictionary In Limerick Form.”

“Objections were raised about our use of the words ‘Oxford English Dictionary,’” reported Strolin, “but by this time, we had well over 600 limericks in the works and had noticed something a bit odd. Many of our limericks were based on words not found in the OED!”

Strolin further justifies the existence of his dictionary by debunking a myth about the OED, which only seems like it contains every word in the English language.

“Many people believe the OED contains ALL the words in the English language,” Strolin asserts on the OEDILF website.

“It very certainly IS the largest dictionary in any language … not to mention the fact that it is quite possibly the single most respected and revered dictionary in the world, but it does not contain, for example, proper nouns as some other dictionaries do. The adjective ‘Shakesperian’ is in there but ‘Shakespeare’ himself is not. Thousands of obscure or little used words which have appeared in other dictionaries were deemed not quite up to snuff, for one reason or another, for the OED.”

Strolin said he then set what any reasonable man would call an unattainable goal, “to write at least one limerick for each and every definition of each and every word in the English language,” whether it's in the OED or not, and to title this grand enterprise “The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form.” “As they say, ‘Aim high and you'll never shoot your foot off.’”

You would have to be incredibly gullible if by now you have not realized that the OEDILF is one of the most ambitious tongue-in-cheek endeavors undertaken for the sake of English speaking people everywhere.

The limerick, as a literary form, has never been, and probably never will be, respectable. Barry Nordin, like most of us, first encountered the form growing up on the streets of South Providence.

“The OEDILF doesn’t ignore those kind of limericks we heard when we were kids,” said Nordin. “Most people who like limericks prefer that they not be clean ones.”

Nordin said the OEDILF has a category for those limericks called the “curtained room,” where visitors can indulge their taste for the off-color poems.

The limerick form has been frequently dismissed as not having a rightful place among serious poets. It may be that they are often bawdy and funny and un-high-minded. They have been traced back to the 14th century in English history. The fact that the lowest strata of that class-ridden country are the biggest fans of the form may have something to do with that. The fact that even drunks can rattle off a fair number of dirty limericks only adds to the “vulgarity” of the form.

The word derives from the Irish town of Limerick, which had a reputation, deserved or not, for singing bawdy songs that came to be known as “Limericks.”

For students of poetry, we offer that limericks consist of five anapaestic lines. Lines 1, 2, and 5 have seven to 10 syllables and rhyme with one another. Lines 3 and 4 have five to seven syllables and also rhyme with each other.

Serious people think no particular talent is necessary to write them. The fact that the first respectable compilation of limericks was published in 1846 in Edward Lear’s “Book of Nonsense” and proved to be very popular with children, although adults started offering limericks to Punch, the British humor magazine around the same time. But Nordin is among those who see Lear as an imperfect practitioner.

“He repeats the first line in the last line of his limericks,” said Nordin. “Most of us consider that unacceptable. You should be able to avoid that if you try.”

When we got word from Nordin about the OEDILF, we decided we would call him for more information, especially about how anyone could make the limerick respectable, so we forced a request into the form:

My boss finds your limericks intriguing
And has sent me a memo impleading
That I drop what I'm doing
And then start pursuing
Your race to corrupt English reading.

Nordin replied that he would be pleased to discuss the OEDILF but he made it clear what he liked in a limerick.

Not all limericks are lusty or lewd
Or filthy or obscenely crude,
Or have purposes shady
Unfit for a lady.
But clean ones? All those I've eschewed.

From the OEDILF dictionary:

The word aardvark is Dutch for "earth pig."
Most pigs, though, have noses less big.
So when seeking ants out,
It makes use of its snout.
Doing elsewise would be infra dig.

by Tim Alborn

I grab bothersome things by the throat,
Slash and slice, then triumphantly gloat.
You think I'm a predator?
No, I'm an editor,
Pouncing on limericks you wrote.

by Ruchiccio


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment