Word of the Week – limerick

Beware. The urge to rhyme is a jolly, seductive joy and limericks are meant to cause trouble. The name is associated with the city and county of Limerick in Ireland, and the ditties date back to the 1800s. A limerick is a type of nonsense verse with five lines: one, two and five rhyme together; three and four rhyme together. The expert, Gersham Leyman says they are almost always obscene, and function to violate taboos.

Which brings us to Boris Johnson, bad boy former Mayor of London. Does anyone remember his rhyming scandal? I’ll get back to his story in a minute, but I just wanted to raise a note of caution before I introduce Merriam Webster’s playful lexicographers.

While researching the word skivvies, I discovered the feature “Words at Play” in Merriam Webster’s online dictionary. Skivvies is a fine word meaning men’s underwear, tops and bottoms. Whereas I don’t need much excuse to look up underwear words (a correspondent suggested skivvies, and I’m prone to suggestion), I have to say I was a bit surprised to find that those scalawag editors at Merriam Webster had collected a bunch of odd terms for underwear. Check out http://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/top-10-odd-words-for-underwear.

I envision the lexicographers as a drier and grayer version of a research librarian, but one of the Merriam Webster folks came up with the word pretties as a term meaning delicate lingerie, usage dating from 1700’s England. The editors warn, however, that you might sound creepy if you use that one in the lingerie store. The ick factor is attributed to association with the Wicked Witch of the West, “I’ll get you, my pretty.”

Knickers has a more mischievous sound, (derived from the Dutch, knickerbockers, short pants gathered at the knee, worn by the Dutch in New York, which led to the name of the baseball team, The Knicks). Other favorites are unmentionables and Merry Widow (a name for a strapless corset, as worn by Lana Turner in a 1952 film of the same name).

But the potential for trouble that I mentioned in the beginning of this post comes, not from the underwear terms but from the feature called “Rhymes With …” following the Merriam Webster word definitions. Example: underwear rhymes with anywhere, billionaire and derriere. Also, Asian pear. And negligee rhymes with alleyway, cabaret and All Fools’ Day. See what I mean? The urge to write a limerick becomes almost irresistible.

Which brings us back to Boris Johnson. What possessed the man, a national politician, to enter a dirty limerick in a contest intended to insult the leader of Turkey? The nuances of British politics might be lost on us Yanks, but the general idea was to show solidarity with a comedian who’d been arrested for making fun of Prime Minister Erdogan. So, Boris tossed his limerick into the contest and, of course, he won. The full text can be found at http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/05/boris-johnson-wins-the-spectators-president-erdogan-offensive-poetry-competition/ but I’m not giving anything away if I tell you the poem suggests that the Prime Minister of Turkey had sex with a goat.

I’m sure you could probably write a better limerick, but I urge you to refrain. After all, they say nothing ever disappears in cyberspace and there are repercussions. Boris Johnson made a big mistake, didn’t he? Well, no. The Brits have rewarded him with their top diplomatic post. He’s their new Foreign Secretary. No kidding.