Daily Archives: February 25, 2012


How would you like to be an eponym?

I suppose it would depend on how you came to be eponymous. Some people have diseases named after them because they identified them (Down, Parkinson, et al. ad naus.); others have diseases named after them because they had them (legionnaires, for instance). Some people have forms of humour named after them because they inspired them (Spooner); some have forms of humour named after them because they created them.

In this last set belongs a certain Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who, as a British schoolboy, penned a little loose-rhythm quatrain:

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

(Was not fond of was later revised to Abominated.) He subsequently penned a number of others on the same model. Another example:

Sir Christopher Wren
Said, “I am going to dine with some men.
If anyone calls
Say I am designing St. Paul’s.”

I think you can see the model. The first line is someone’s name (typically someone famous). This sets a pattern of usually two stressed syllables per line, but that is very loosely handled. The poem has two rhyming couplets, and tosses in some biographical detail about the person (Bentley’s books of clerihews include Biography for Beginners (1905), More Biography (1929), and Baseless Biography (1939)). It is important that the poem be amusing!

We note that the poems are not called bentleys. That would sound rather posh, and in particular would associate them with expensive cars typically driven by old-money types of people. (Even in Toronto, where Jaguars are a common sight and Lamborghinis can be seen driving by on infrequent occasion – and of course BMWs are more common than dirt – I see only a few Bentleys a year.) They are also not called edmunds. That would have some echoes of Shakespearean characters and a few other literary presences, and at the same time would be too well-known a person name to be all that distinctive. And it can’t help that it’s a sort of blunt sound with a dull vowel in the middle.

No, they are Clerihews, the least common of his three names. Clerihew is actually a Scottish family name, and in fact I know someone who comes from that family. [See the comments below for more on its origin.] You probably do not, as it really is not a common family name (neither is Harbeck, but I must say Clerihew has a certain idiosyncrasy that Harbeck does not). It seems almost to be the name of a bird, something like a curlew or a whippoorwill or perhaps a heronshew, or some other thing such as a creature like a fitchew hiding in the greenhew. Or perhaps an architectural feature like a clerestory in some mews.

The opening cl has a crisp clarity and cleanliness, a touch of class, though perhaps clerkish. All the vowels are front vowels (although the last one moves into a /w/), so there is a brightness to it, and the wheeze or sigh of the /h/ in the middle adds a softness, as of a pale or pastel hue – or a person breathing whew or phew.

The word as a whole anagrams to whericle, which is not a word but really should be; may I suggest that we now christen it one and use it to name a clerihew-type poem featuring not a person but a place, and (since the order of the word is reversed in four pieces) with the place name at the end, not the beginning, and starting (naturally) with where:

Where is an immenser
Historical dispenser
Of cheese, stone, and hassle?
Caerphilly Castle.

Where will you traipse
Over hills of peaches and grapes,
But find no cranberry bog in?
The Okanagan.

Where did the English entrench
Use of, and resistance to, French
More than at claret tastings?
The Battle of Hastings.

Most of the other words you can find in clerihew are not particularly related: chew, while, rice, rile, where, crewel; I do think rich is semantically relevant, but it doesn’t have much of the flavour of clerihew.

The big challenge of clerihews, aside from being witty, is to find a rhyme for the name; this can be on the difficult side at times. I’ve written a few recently for friends’ names, and you can see the contortions sometimes necessary:

Arlene Prunkl
Knew a little spunk’ll
Serve you in writing
And all kinds of uniting.

Antonia Morton
Waits for men to come a-courtin’:
Be they clients, be they lovers,
She knows her way between the covers.

Paul Cipywnyk
Doesn’t settle for what he’s giv’n: ich-
thyologic or prosaic,
He’s reliably apotropaic.

Margaret Gibbs
Keeps dolls in cribs.
She sees no analogy
Between that and genealogy.

They make a fun little challenge. (I also do them on request.)