More Tom Swifties – and beyond

A light-hearted look at some verse forms – including limericks, clerihews and double dactyls. Published in MET Vol. 10 No. 4 (October 2001) [This is a continuation of an article you can find here]

In a previous article in MET Vol.10 No.1 (Jan 2001) we looked at Tom Swifties. Here’s an example to remind you: ‘Give me your gun,’ said Tom, disarmingly. Yes, they are very bad puns but that’s the point – the reaction is supposed to be a groan, not a laugh. In fact there is more than one kind of Swiftie.

The kind we’ve looked at is the adverbial kind (‘They say I overuse adverbs,’ said Tom, swiftly). But there is another kind which uses a verb instead of an adverb. An example might be ‘What a lovely brook,’ Tom babbled, where babbled refers both to what Tom says and the noise of the running water.Here are some more ‘verbal’ Swifties: 

     ‘Don’t you get angry with me,’ Tom growled.
     ‘I think there’s a hole in the road ahead,’ Tom hazarded.
     ‘What? Me? A drinking problem?’ Tom gulped.

There is a rarer third type, using a prepositional phrase: ‘I’m leaving you, Rupert,’ said Rodney in gay abandon. These are rather harder to construct than the other two (and my apologies for the stereotyping here).

Another variant of the Tom Swiftie matches a person’s name with an appropriate adjective. We might for example speak of The hasty Mr Swift, where the adjective hasty picks up on an attribute contained in the name Swift. Some more examples: thinking of ELT authors, we might refer to the brutal Mr Harmer where the word ‘harm’ (embedded in ‘Harmer’) is associated with the idea of brutality or violence; the festive Ms Revell (‘revels’ are parties); or the towering Mr and Mrs Soars (to ‘soar’ is to shoot up high into the air).You get the idea.

But Swifties are only one example of ways in which people play with words. Let’s have a look at some other ways of bending the language to our will, playing this time with what might charitably be called verse but should more accurately be termed doggerel.

The limerick

The limerick is an institution throughout the English-speaking world. In fact, there is actually a Limerick day – celebrated on the twelfth of May. I’ve no idea who decided this, or when, but one year US novelist Erica Jong celebrated the occasion with a tribute to the inventor of the Limerick, Edward Lear:

A bespectacled artist called Lear
First perfected this smile in a sneer.
He was clever and witty
He gave life to this ditty
That original author called Lear.

Edward Lear first published limericks in 1846 and since then the craze has never really died, although the majority in circulation are probably not suitable to tell your grandmother. The rhyme and rhythm are supposed to be always the same (AABBA) and the last line is supposed to produce a humorous climax.

The format is not as restrictive as it might seem. Here’s another, slightly less conventional one.

It’s a favourite project of mine
A new value of p to assign
I would fix it at 3
For it’s simpler, you see
Than 3 point 1  4  1  5  9

Lear’s original Limericks usually started with ‘There once was a man from…’ or ‘There was a young lady from…’ and the final line echoed the first one. This form is rare now, and there is really no limit to the ingenuity of some people who turn their hand to writing limericks.

I was once challenged to write a limerick beginning ‘There was a young girl called Victoria’ (Victoria was the name of the Institution I worked at) and it took me quite a long time to work out a suitable rhyme scheme. If you’re sensitive, skip the rest of this paragraph – but I was quite proud of what I eventually came up with:

There was a young girl called Victoria
Who frequented the world’s crematoria
The key to her dreams
Was the smell, so it seems,
Which induced a protracted euphoria.

Rapidly shifting to a loftier example, a graduate of the University of Birmingham has embarked on the extraordinarily obscure task of putting Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece King Lear into limerick form (see box). Don’t ask me why, but if you compare this extract with the original text (King Lear, Act I, Sc ii) and try to continue for a verse or so, you will rapidly realise just how impossibly difficult the task is.

This comes from Act I, Sc ii, where Edmund and his father Gloster are reading and discussing a letter, supposedly written by Gloster’s bastard son Edgar, in which it is proposed that the two sons murder their father. To appreciate this tour de force it helps considerably if you know the plot.

Edmund Dear Edmund, times stink, and the proof
is oldies have ackers, but youth
must cope without cash
with nothing to splash
until we’re quite long in the tooth.
Gloster He says that, does he ? Good, bend an ear,
and I’ll comment in words that are clear
as a bell. If you list-
en You might learn.
Edmund Wouldn’t miss
 exposition from you, dad,
Gloster So here
is a case, as we see, where it’s clear
that the pain, if one’s poor, is severe.
And unless one gets rich
like me, life’s a bitch
and the goodies impossibly dear.
Ah ha! Now where are we, this raises
the question of hardship. What fazes
me is waiting for bread
till our daddy is dead
and buried and pushing up daisies.
Edmund Up daisies, up daisies, wha- what ?
He couldn’t, he didn’t, Great Scott,
well that is on the terse
side, the next bit is worse
though. Goodness !
Gloster Go on!  Read the lot. 
Yes read it.
Edmund He thinks you’re too slow
Gloster I’m what ?
Edmund You won’t go.
Gloster Won’t go where ?
Edmund That’s the drift.

So, if dad will not shift
himself from this place here below

and transfer up to heaven above
We should do what is needed to shove
him. As Edgar I sign
for myself on the line
and conclude with all brotherly love.’

Here are a few more limericks for you:

This self-same young girl called Victoria

(whose hobby could not have been gorier)
Was consigned to the flames
By a curate called James
Who then sang an improvised ‘Gloria’
(Helen Grayson)

The limerick is furtive and mean;
You must keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks to the slums
And promply becomes
Disorderly, drunk and obscene.

There was a young lady from Kent
Who said that she knew what it meant
When men asked her to dine,
Gave her cocktails and wine
She knew what it meant but she went.

12, 144 + 20
+ 3(√4)
÷ 7
+ 5 x 11
= 81 + 0
(Nigel Dunn – See below for translation)

The clerihew

This is another verse form that has a strict rhyme scheme but the rhythm is rather more flexible. It was invented in 1890 or thereabouts, perhaps unsurprisingly by a gentleman of the name of Edmund Clerihew Bentley. His first clerihew is said to have been as follows:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

Although very possibly the first of its kind, this is far from the best example of the genre and other writers with time on their hands have since gone on to produce far more skilled examples. Here are a couple more:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said ‘I’m going to dine with some men.’
If anyone calls
Tell them I’m designing St Paul’s.

And another I found in my notes:

Billy the Kid
Never did
For killing those guys

The structure of the clerihew consists of two phrases, each consisting of rhyming couplets and spread over two lines of indeterminate length, giving a total of four lines. The first line is the name of a person and the other three lines make a comment or observation about him (or her, technically, but strangely all the clerihews I have read seem to be about men. There must be a paper in that somewhere …)

The double dactyl

This is a variation on the clerihew, although a little more structured, and is known in the US by the name Higgledy Piggledy. The form is said to have been invented by Anthony Hecht and Paul Pascal (see references below). It consists of two quatrains each of four lines. The second line must be a person’s name and the fourth and eighth lines must rhyme. At least one line must consist of a single word only, almost always multisyllabic. Here’s an example from The Sunday Times Guide to Wordplay and Word Games:

Tweedledum Tweedledee
Alice in Wonderland
First she was tiny and
Then she was small
Argued with animals
Didn’t accept their
Conclusions at all.

And another from Helen Grayson at the University of Leeds

Opera seria
Kiri Te Kanawa
Hits all the highest notes
Never sings flat.
Would Gotterdammerung
Happen tomorrow if
Kiri got fat?

Double dactyls are as not easy to write as limericks or clerihews, especially when the sense of the poem is supposed to relate to the life of the person mentioned in the second line, although the form has found popularity on university campuses where people tend to be more used to long words and convoluted language.

Material consulted

  • Hecht A. & Pascal P., Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls, Athenaeum, New York, 1967.
  • King G., The Sunday Times Guide to Wordplay and Word Games, Mandarin, London, 1993
  • McArthur T., The Oxford Companion to the English Language, OUP, 1992
  • Ousby I., The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, CUP, 1993

Translation of Nigel Dunn’s limerick:

A dozen, a gross and a score
Plus three times the square root of four
Divided by seven
Plus five times eleven
Provides eighty-one, nothing more



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