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Definition mission: A rhyming limerick for each English word

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Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017 12:48 PM
Chris Strolin poses for a photo in Belleville, Ill. Strolin created the online Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form, or OEDILF for short, and with the help of contributors has published more than 97,000 definitions of words in limerick form since it began in 2004.

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.

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 Belleville, Illinois, 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 Donald 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, Vermont, 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.”

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