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Lingua Franca’s Winning Limerick, a Labor of Love

Two weeks ago I announced a contest for the best new original limerick on language. Easy to ask, hard to do.

A limerick is one of the most demanding of verse forms. It gallops along in a tight circle, knocking out rhymes right and left (well, actually, just right). It demands nimble anapestic feet. Ideally it has two sets of rhymes precisely placed in a mere 39 syllables.

The form is difficult enough; the content is worse. A limerick needs to be both majestic and playful, straightforward and ironic. It’s often expected to be at least a little naughty. And it needs to be structured like a joke, with an unexpected but apt punch line at the end.

The constraints of the form are so maddening that writers sometimes flout them, not just cheating a little but adding a generous dollop of syllables, especially to the last line. That can add to the humor, but it’s not going to win a prize from me, because the humor of the vagrant form rarely relates to the humor of the punch line.

And for this particular contest, the subject matter has to be language. “Matters of punctuation and usage,” I began, but later simply said “language.” So anything language-related will do, with an edge given to poems that, in the spirit of the limerick, treat trivial matters of usage with straight-faced seriousness.

Measured against those standards, of nearly 100 entrants in my contest, most were disappointing, as indeed were my own examples announcing the contest. But I found five that happily came close to meeting all the demands. Here are the finalists.

First, from “22199474,” a limerick that begins with two great, naughty lines:

A diphthong’s not something you wear
When you prance on the beach, nearly bare.
It’s when vowel sounds glide
—o and i side by side—
Making one sound instead of a pair.

If there had been a twist in the last line, that limerick would have taken the prize.

Next, from “Chompy,” each line a twist on the one before:

A precocious young daughter from Slough
would harass her mum as to how
it should be called Sluff;
cried her mum, “That’s enough!”
smiled the brat, “Don’t you mean that’s enow?”

And another from “Chompy,” best punch line (bilingual division):

Said la mere to her jeune fille, “Tu sais,
tu look un peu déshabillée.”
La fille said, “Je know
que j’ai beaucoup on show,
je suis back from un role in La Haye.”

That one uses language to great effect, but it’s not really about language, so it can’t be the winner. This next one, by Charlie MacFayden, manages to encompass five language matters, both punctuation and usage:

Between you and I, I’ll confess,
You’re grammars a bit of a mess.
If I was a scholar,
I’d probably holler,
But as it is, I could care less.

But my winner, by Abraham Tetenbaum, has it all, including usage, naughtiness, and a twist in the last line, and as a bonus, love:

When I sign off with love at the close
Of an e-mail with x’s and o’s
My chaste lower-case kisses
Are “corrected” like This is:
X-rated emphatic-tac-toes!

So Abraham, send your mailing address to allan.metcalf@mac.edu, and I’ll send you your very own copy of OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word. And to everybody else, it was a tough call; with a different judge, you might have been the winner. So thanks to all who responded to the challenge.

And should I try this ever again?

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