One man's joke has become his mission: to give each word a rhyming definition.
Chris Strolin was teasing English buffs in an online forum years ago when he said the dictionary should be rewritten in the singsong rhyme scheme of limericks. He ended up embracing the absurd bravado of his own wisecrack and decided to try it for real.
He started with the word "a" — "It's used with a noun to convey/ A singular notion/ Like 'a duck' or 'a potion'" — and kept going. More than 1,000 contributors have joined him, off and on, over the years.
• How do you define a word with a limerick? Some examples
The Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form (or OEDILF for short) has published more than 97,000 rhyming definitions since Strolin started it in 2004. The retired Air Force radio operator from Bellville, Ill., says his project is on track to publish its 100,000th limerick in the coming year.
He hopes his grandchildren — or perhaps their kids — will finish the job decades from now.
The online wisecrack that led to the OEDILF's origin was a teasing swipe Strolin made at the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which defines 600,000 words across 20 printed volumes. Strolin remarked that the Oxford dictionary was good, but needed improvement. His not-so-serious solution: limericks.
"The more I got to thinking about it, it sounded like a good idea," Strolin said. "The limerick is probably the most reader friendly of all types of poetry. It's also one of the easiest forms of poetry to write."
Perhaps not so easy: Writing a limerick that weaves a joke into an accurate explanation of word's meaning. Take contributor Bill Middleton's definition of "adult":
"As a kid, I was wild and a clown. As a teen, I would dash about town. Now adult, I shall go Very cautious and slow. Goes to prove: what grows up must calm down."
The definitions run the gamut from the unwieldy adjective "aequeosalinocalcalinoceraceoaluminosocupreovitriolic" — coined centuries ago to describe the spa waters of Bath, England — to terms that didn't exist until recently.
When President Trump created a new word this year with a head-scratching Twitter typo, four OEDILF writers churned out limericks. "Inscrutably tweeted/ A word? Uncompleted?/ The absurd so-called word was covfefe."
To break a huge job into manageable chunks, Strolin has writers tackle the language in alphabetical order. The online dictionary currently stops in the Gs at "gizzard."
That leaves nearly three-fourths of the alphabet still undefined. Assuming the project outlives him, Strolin estimates writers following in his keystrokes will finish the Zs around the year 2076.
"People have said, 'I've got a great limerick for vacuum cleaner,'" Strolin said. "And I tell them: Great! Give it to your grandkids."
Andrew Besso of Jericho, Vt., took up writing limerick definitions in late 2015. Since multiple sclerosis forced him to quit working as a high school math tutor last year, he's begun treating his hobby almost like a full-time job.
Besso, who used the screen name AndrewB, in recent months has been submitting one or two limericks each day. Between October and December, he more than doubled his two-year output for the site.
"I've been writing a limerick a day, or sometimes two, for a while now," Besso said. "Usually the way I decide what to write is by choosing from lists of words that haven't been defined yet. I won't tackle a word that's already been defined unless I've got something to add."
So while many words in the OEDILF have multiple definitions by different authors, Besso so far is the only one to write limericks for words including "auto-rewind," "crystal therapy," "drum stool," "emoter" and "gimlet."
Sandra Petersen of Frankfurt, Germany, has cranked out 289 limericks since March. The software designer said she likes the challenge of writing in English, which she learned as the daughter of a United Nations translator.
Petersen gravitates toward scientific words such as "ferriferous" and "Gastropteridae." And she wrote a series of limericks on computer keyboard shortcuts such as "Control-N" and "Control-W."
"I write most limericks in one sitting, but I lose interest quickly," Petersen said in an email. "Then I'll file away what I have and look at it again another day. Often I think of good solutions for a missing piece far away from my lists — in the shower, in bed or driving to work."
While handling duties as editor-in-chief, Strolin still tries to write at least one limerick per day. His total output: 7,657 rhyming definitions. That's an average of 589 each year.
Strolin said he's confident his quirky online dictionary is a literary monument that will last. He compares it to "the huge cathedrals in Europe" that took more than a century to complete.
"The people who began those projects knew they would never be sitting in the pews on opening day," Strolin said. "I do believe this project has legs. There's no doubt in my mind people are going to be reading and enjoying our limericks 200 to 300 years from now."
The Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form (or OEDILF) has published more than 97,000 definitions written in the singsong poetry of a five-line limerick. Here are some examples selected from the website.
When my paint bottles spilled, how I swore!
They spread red, blue and yellow; what's more,
Purple, orange and green
Then appeared in the scene
As an abstract was formed on the floor.
— by art bates
The waters where babies should frolic
Whenever they're subject to cholic
— by Graham Lester
Here's a boilerplate limerick style:
The rhythm and meter beguile.
The lines at the core
Are too droll to ignore,
And a joke at the end makes you smile.
— by David Schildkret
CCTV (closed-circuit television)
What's to fear from a camera or three
And appearing on CCTV?
Having every move tracked
Is a comfort, in fact.
Why, the state's like a brother to me.
— by speedysnail
Many websites you may have been cruising.
Time to close some you're no longer using:
Hold Control plus one key:
Don't think "close" and press "C'' —
No, it's W. Ain't that confusing?
— by zqms
Trigger knows about physics, of course,
When it deals just with speed, mass or force.
But his mind tends to jam
On "I think, so I am."
So please don't put Descartes 'fore this horse.
— by zqms
Emotional blackmail's the way
I control him. I just have to say,
"If you leave me, I'll cry,
Or possibly die."
And his guilt makes me sure he will stay.
— by AndrewB
When I spotted the typo, I cursed,
"Damn, this limerick is one of my worst!"
Had I fixed it, it could
Have been passably good.
I regret now not checking it first.
— by Chris J. Strolin and Bob Egg
Please, you must go! Goodnight, and adieu.
I'm just ... busy. Yes. That. Things to do ...
(It's a full moon tonight —
When that orb's round and bright,
I'll be busy, all right.) Ah_AROOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
— by Reia Light
The gizzard, as most here will know,
Is the route bird's digestion must go.
This stomach, the second,
Grinds food (so it's reckoned);
The first lets digestive juice flow.
— by psheil