Friday, October 14, 2011

From Nigeria to Nantucket: A Limerick Project of Epic Proportions

After my recent post about the legal kerfuffle between Chinua Achebe and rapper 50 Cent, a friend of mine reminded me that I once wrote a limerick about Achebe. I had to look it up to remember the words:

Achebe, Chinua

If reading has started to weary ya
And you'd like to read lit from Nigeria,
You'd do well to start
With Things Fall Apart.
Achebe should fit your criteria.

Chinua Achebe (ah-CHAY-bay, b. 1930) also wrote the novels No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God.

I’d love to be able to claim that I just sit around dashing off limericks about African novelists and stay up nights finding reasons to rhyme Nigeria and criteria (the second half is partly true), but I actually had a reason. The reason, though, might be even more unusual.

I created it as an entry into a dictionary made up completely of limericks. It’s not my project, but the brainchild of one Chris J. Strolin, the madman and genius behind the OEDILF, or the Omniscent English Dictionary in Limerick Form. (Originally the project was called the Oxford English Dictionary in Limerick Form, but the actual OED folks weren’t keen on it.)

Strolin’s goal is to ultimately define every word in the English language (and that includes the notable proper names often found in dictionaries, like Achebe above) with its own limerick. The project began in 2004, and is now up to the middle of the letter ‘E’ with around 75,000 limericks submitted.

The estimated completion date is 2037, though it’s acknowledged that with the changing language, the result will be merely a first edition of a work that will remain in progress.

The OEDILF only opens up small letter ranges of the dictionary at a time, mainly in order to keep writers from working ahead and claiming all the “good” words.

Anyone can contribute limericks to the OEDILF. Just browse through the list of open words (words not yet defined) and craft a limerick that in some way defines the word.

It’s that simple --sort of. Limericks don’t actually appear as part of the dictionary (though they are in the database and can be viewed) until they go through a workshopping process that is by turns exhilarating and maddening. The folks at the OEDILF know their stuff, and they’ll catch a forced meter, a wonky definition or an incorrect fact from miles away.

Even the best writers might have to revise a limerick a few times before it passes muster. It’s actually a fantastic way to hone writing and editing skills.

After you’ve had a certain number of limericks approved, you too can join in on the workshopping of others’ limericks.

The limericks in the OEDILF range from funny to downright sublime, and I highly recommend browsing even if you don’t want to contribute.

Some of my favorite entries from others:

ecru by Chris Doyle

To the Senate comes Brutus one day
In a toga that's yellowish-gray.
It's so out there that Caesar,
A notable teaser,
Can't help but say, "Ecru, Brute?"

disclaimer by Jeff Foster

A written disclaimer makes clear,
"We can't be responsible here."*
*The above definition,
By author's admission,
Was reached after 12 pints of beer.

 catarrhally by Janet McConnaughey
She gazed at me hotly, boudoirally,
Bosom heaving and eyes glowing starrily.
In spite of my virus
She made me desirous.
"Led's ged barried," I offered, catarrhally.

I spend time on the OEDILF in bursts, leaving off to pursue other projects, then becoming re-addicted. My first approved limerick was this one, for the word cheesesteak:

Said a passionate eater from Philly
Who believed haute cuisine was just silly,
"If your cheesesteak is twee
And it's made with French brie,
Though it's called one, it isn't one, really."

My favorite limericks to write were humorous ones that still gave enough context to define the word. I’m a sucker for a lame joke, and I went to town:

A yokel was heard to say "Aw!
I got somethin' stuck in my jaw!
But—wait now—by cracky!
It's just my tobacky.
I fergot I was chewin' my chaw!"


champagne flute

When at parties, I've seen the elite
Use the champagne-from-slipper conceit.
But when drinking my Brut
From a stemmed, tapered flute,
Then I'm certain it won't taste of feet.

Or even:

 chicken Kiev
For chicken Kiev that's divine,
Take a breast and then pound it 'til fine.
Roll with butter, then bake,
And that's how you make —
No, a chicken breast, moron, not mine!

Once I got the hang of the form, I ventured into more academic limericks, like the Achebe piece. One of my happiest achivements in life may have been the day a limerick I wrote to include the longest word in the works of Shakespeare was finally approved by the workshop editors. It took months of revisions (getting the meter right involved the tearing out of hair), but I finally wrested this feat of limerick-crafting from my keyboard, with help from one of the limerick luminaries.

Costard (with Chris Doyle)

As a clown, Costard often amuses,
But in Love's Labour's Lost when he uses
initatibus," will a dude,
Upon hearing it, think the fool boozes?


If you'd like to join the madness, register for the OEDILF. It's not for everyone, but you might be just the kind of brilliant oddball they need.

The OEDILF is browsable, so you can search the database for words beginning with A-El. If you find a fun word, post it here (not the whole limerick, unless you also cite the author). Do you dare join? If so, I'll see you around!


  1. Hi Kelly, I saw your link over at Tossing It Out's blog and am stopping by to say hello. Have a great weekend!

  2. That is indeed an epic project. Don't know how useful it is, but it certainly gives limerickcists and bored writers something to do. Actually it's very creative. There is some very funny stuff here. Nice job on your contribution.

    Tossing It Out

  3. Thanks for stopping by, Stephen.

    Lee: It's possibly more useful than you think. Some of the entries for scientific and technical terms make much more sense to me as explained in a limerick rather than a dry encyclopedia-style entry.

  4. Hello, I found my way over here through Arlee. I became a fan of Limerick while in primary school. Haven't had the pleasure of reading any in some time. Cool stuff you have posted here. Definitely have to check out that business between Achebe/50 cents. Definitely feeling my age though as I used Things Fall Apart in high school.

  5. Kelly, these are awesome. Thank you for a delightful laugh over lunch.

  6. Love your blog name.

    Wish I could follow, but I don't see the section for that.


  7. Hi Elizabeth--There are several options: following with Blogger in the usual upper left, or subscribing via many kinds of RSS or email to the right. I just moved the Google Friend Connect to the right as well, as it may have been hard to find. Is there an option you wanted but couldn't find? I know I get frustrated when I can't figure out how to follow someone, so I'd love the feedback. Thanks for visiting.