Heard on NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” on Morning Edition Saturday yesterday: a re-play of a Listener Limerick Challenge in which the program’s limericist was referred to.

Since 2000 (and at least until last year) this position has been filled by Philipp [correct spelling] Goedicke. My focus here is not on the arrangements of this radio program but in the innovation limericist ‘someone who devises limericks’ (which seems to have a modest representation on the web, as on the website Here-Be-Limerick-Poems, with its page “Examples of Limerick Poems: The Work of Limericist Edward Lear”.)

It’s not in the OED (yet), nor does it seem to be mentioned on the OEDILF (Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form) site, where people submit “definitions” of words in limerick form (thanks to Chris Waigl for bringing this site to my attention), as in this example:

limerick is, by design,
A poem that’s written five-line;
Counting feet, I have seen
There are always thirteen.
Anapestic ones? That would be fine!

(The “definitions” tend to be by use in context, and even when they try to provide crucial aspects of the semantics for the expression being defined, they are incomplete. But then the constraints of the form are severe.)

(For the record: The limerick is an anapestic tetrameter form, with rests filling the fourth foot in lines 1, 2, and 4 (that’s what gives an apparent foot count of 13 rather than 16); the three short lines rhyme, and line 3, customarily written as two lines, rhymes internally. Departures from the rhyme scheme are very rare, but departures from the canonical foot structure are extremely common, with two of them — iambic first foot and trailing syllables in the fourth foot — are so common as to count as allowable metrical variants rather than true deviations. More discussion here.)

(Also for the record: The details of the connection between the verse form and the Irish town is a complex question, considered at some length on ADS-L a while back. But I am neither a scholar of word origins nor do I know the relevant cultural history, so I bow out of this discussion — which is entirely irrelevant to the point of this posting in any case.)

Getting back to limericist: the analysis of the word (limerick + derivational -ist) is entirely clear, its meaning can be guessed at (at least within the right ballpark) from this analysis, and its pronunciation is also clear (limerick with a /k/, limeric- with an /s/, accent on the first syllable of limericist, as in limerick), even if you hadn’t heard it said on the air, as I did.

The more specific focus of this piece is the /k/-/s/ alternation in limericist, which is signalled by the spelling with C rather than CK. But what lies behind this orthographic change?

Before I get to the phonology, a few words from a University of Chicago Magazine piece of June 2002 about Goedicke:

Among the most popular [features of the show] is the Listener Limerick Challenge. To win, contestants listen to Carl Kasell read limericks based on the week’s news stories, and they complete the verses with the correct words. Since July 2000 the job of writing these limericks each week has fallen to Goedicke, who studies in the U of C’s music department.

Goedicke learned of the opportunity to write for Wait Wait while listening to the show one Saturday morning on Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ-FM. “Their previous limerick writer had left her position with NPR,” he recalls, “and they announced on the air that they would accept entries from listeners. That evening I started messing around with limericks for the first time in my life, and the following week I submitted three a day.” His command of the verse form so impressed the show’s staff that they used some of his limericks that week, offering him the “limericist” position soon after.

Now the phonology.

The accent really doesn’t need comment, because it’s carried over from the source stem to the derived word. Most English suffixes are “stress-neutral”, not affecting the accent of the stem they’re attached to, and -ist is a routine suffix in this regard, as are its siblings -ize and -ism . Contrast to them -ity, which, exceptionally, requires accent on the syllable immediately preceding it, as in tímid – timídity and públic – publícity; or indeed -ic, as in Sátan – Satánic and Hómer – Homéric; call this effect “stress attraction” (SA).

Long story short, only certain suffixes beginning with /ɪ/ trigger SA, and ingenuity won’t distinguish these from one another phonologically; it turns out to be a morpheme-by-morpheme thing.

In particular, it’s suffixal morphemes, and not just syllables of the right shape. The suffix -ic attracts stress, but a final syllable that just happens to have the shape /ɪk/ won’t do: it’s túrmeric, not turméric — and límerick, not limérick.

Next complication: some suffixes beginning with /ɪ/ also trigger one of the “velar softening” (VS) effects, shift of stem-final /k/ to /s/. This time -ist, -ize, and -ism pattern together with -ic and -ity, so we have public – publicist (VS but no SA) and public – publicity (both VS and SA).

Final complication: only certain stems — in particular, “learnèd” stems (roughly, those from the historically Latin/Greek-derived stratum of the English vocabulary) — are historically compatible with the learnèd suffixes we’ve been looking at (-ist/-ize/-ism and –ic/-ity), so that we’d expect a name like Fromkin simply to lack derivatives with these suffixes.

Whatever the history of such mixed combinations — non-learnèd stem with learnèd suffix — any resistance to them has by now pretty much crumbled, at least for the  (non-SA) -ist/-ize/-ism set: Fromkinist, Fromkinize, and Fromkinism are all entirely possible coinages, and in fact verbings in -ize and their nominal extensions in -ization are so common as to frustrate anyone who tries to keep track of them (as I have done on occasion).

The spread of the SA suffixes -ic/-ity to non-learnèd stems has been more restrained, with the resulting derivatives (things like Fromkínic and Fromkínity) tending to sound like academic jokes — though derivatives with alternative non-learnèd suffixes like -ish and -ness (Fromkinish, Fromkinness) are only a bit less outré.

VS in non-learnèd stems is even harder to cope with, presumably because it tends to substantially obscure the identity of the stem, so that even when you can imagine playfully adding a VS-triggering suffix to a non-learnèd stem, VS will probably be blocked, especially if the host stem has an accented final syllable or is a proper name (where an obscuring effect would be especially strong): you can get away with adding -ist/-ize/-ism to the nominal stem attack (final accent, non-proper), Munich (non-final accent, proper), or Iraq (final accent, proper), but VS in the derivative — attacist, Municist, Iracist rather than attackist, Munichist, Iraqist — is virtually unimaginable, except as an extremely arcane academic joke. (Things are even worse if you combine VS and SA, in something like Munícity, from Munich, or Connícity, from Connick.)

The remaining case where you could in principle get VS in a non-learnèd stem is the non-final accent, non-proper case: turmeric and (yes, finally back to the original point!) limerick the verse form (rather than the town name). The word turmeric is uncommon, its combination with any of the suffixes I’ve been looking at is unlikely, and, thanks to the spelling, it’s subject to eggcorning as somehow involving the derivational suffix -ic, so that it’s hard to have any intuitions about the possibility of any derived forms whatsoever: túrmeric(k)ist or turméric(k)ist or turmerícity or whatever.

However, limerick is another matter. In combination with -ist/-ize/-ism we’d expect no VS: limerickist (in combination with -ic/-ity there’s no choice: VS in limericity or nothing; and indeed for relevant examples it’s limericity over limerickity by small numbers to 0). And this variant is reasonably well attested, as in this parody limerick:

There was an Old Limerickist named Lear
Whose rhyme-schemes were decidedly queer:
The first and last lines
Were near-identical most times
That cheating Old Limerickist Lear!

But, as I pointed out early on in this posting, the somewhat jokey VS variant limericist is also reasonably well attested. And if you spell it that way, that’s the way it’s going to be pronounced, with an /s/ rather than a /k/.

(We have here another conflict between Faithfulness — preserving the base word intact — and Well-Formedness — applying VS; see the inventory of Faith vs. WF postings here.)

Beyond turmeric and limerick, there’s at least one other test case, the derivational suffix -nik (which has become reasonably productive in English in the last 50 years). From the -nik entry in Michael Quinion’s on-line Ologies and Isms dictionary of affixes:

A person associated with a specified thing or quality.

[A Yiddish and Russian suffix.]

The ending had been known in English before the mid 1950s, notably in the Yiddish nudnik for a person who pesters or bores, kibbutznik for a member of a kibbutz, and in proper names such as Chetnik, a member of a guerrilla force in the Balkans. However, it was sputnik (literally ‘fellow-traveller’ in Russian), a satellite launched in October 1957, that introduced the ending to a wider English audience. Examples include beatnik, a member of the Beat generation; refusenik, a Jew in the former Soviet Union who was refused permission to emigrate to Israel; neatnik, a person neat in his habits, the opposite of a beatnik; and peacenik, a member of a pacifist movement. The form has since lost much of its novel force; the rare new examples tend to follow neatnik and peacenik in being facetious or mildly derogatory: nogoodnikallrightnik.

Or, from my own experience, MITnik or Mitnik, someone (in particular, a linguist) associated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When I was a grad student there, and for at least a few years afterwards, MIT linguists were sometimes referred to, usually disparagingly (suggesting an unhealthy, dogmatic devotion to the ideas of Noam Chomsky), by this term. (Thanks to the large number of people with the surname Mitnik or Mitnick, some of them associated with MIT, it’s very difficult to do a web search for MITnik.)

The question is what happens when we suffix -ist/-ize/-ism to a -nik word. What’s the dogma of MITniks called? MITnikism (without VS) or MITnicism (with VS)? Neither variant gets any ghits, but then the base word is already a kind of in-joke, so what should we expect?

In this particular case, some of us charged with being MITniks opted for MITnicism and MITnicize ‘act/talk like someone from MIT’. Perhaps defiantly, perhaps under the influence of The Sound Pattern of English (1968), most likely both.

Some of the other -nik words have been suffixed with -ism, and insofar as there’s evidence it’s in favor of preserving the base word (no VS): peaceni(c)kism rather than peacenicism, by small numbers to 0.

(Once again, for -ity we’d expect to have to bite the VS bullet or give up on the combination entirely, but the evidence is ridiculously scant. Here’s a mouth-frothing commenter from 2000 on an opinion site:

We don’t want – nor do we NEED – your influence, your “affluenza”, your guilt, your persnickety-peacenicity, your ‘cant-we-all-just-get-along’, ‘fah-hoo-fo-ray-dah-hoo-do-ray’, ‘all-we-are-saying-is-give-drugs-a-chance’, Patchoulie-smelling, roll-your-own, tie-DIE, miscreant, knee-jerk, nihilistic effing BULLSHIT!!!

This is the only relevant cite I could find for -ic/-ity suffixed to a -nik word. Either the commenter went for VS or he was aiming for peaceni(c)kity to rhyme with persnickety but fell into spelling problems (we can infer that he got SA right, though). I’m not going to try to track him down and ask.)

Bottom line on limerickist vs. limericist: Both resolutions of the Faith-WF conflict for VS are possible in this case, with limericist getting some points for playfulness.

4 Responses to “limericist”

  1. Kathleen Martin Says:

    I’ve used the term “limericist” for myself since the early ’80s when my rhymes were first published. You can see some examples at my site:

    [Taglines are another niche.]

  2. Evensong « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] limerick form is an anapestic 4 x 4 with rests in the fourth foot of lines 1, 2, and 4 (discussion here). Other folksong forms are trochaic 4 x 4s. They’re all over the […]

  3. Burlesques, parodies, playful allusions « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] limericist (link): with a parody […]

  4. Edward Lear at 200 « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] On limericks, see here. […]

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