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warren clements: word play

Reader Henrietta Johnson was surprised to learn from last week's column that the lizzie in "tin lizzie," the nickname for Henry Ford's Model T, was short for limousine. She had assumed the name was short for Elizabeth, since she remembered her father using another diminutive of Elizabeth – "Whoa, Betsy!" – when addressing the family car, as earlier riders had addressed their horses.

There is a tradition of referring to the automobile as female. (See the 1965 situation comedy My Mother the Car. Or rather, don't.) In the 1950s series The Roy Rogers Show, sidekick Pat Brady drove around in a jeep he called Nellybelle. There was also a tendency to call guns by women's names. Ol' Betsy was a rifle in the TV series Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter, and Brown Bess was the nickname for a British musket first used in the 1700s.

But I digress. The lizzie in tin lizzie appears to come from limousine. The question naturally arises: Where did limousine come from?

Many reference books agree that the word derived from the French province (now region) of Limousin, an area that includes the china-producing city of Limoges. There is less agreement on how the word emerged.

Carmaker Charles Jeantaud, born in Limoges, produced cars in France before and after the first known use of the word limousine in 1902. The early limousine had an enclosed passenger compartment; the driver sat up front, often with a roof over his head but with little else to protect him from the elements. It may have been Jeantaud who, imagining the car's resemblance to a hooded cloak worn by shepherds in Limousin, first called the car a limousine. Nobody is certain.

Another Lim name, the town of Limerick in Ireland, has its own claim to fame in the name of the limerick, the humorous five-line verse form. But again, it remains only a claim. Some people say the verse really got its name from a corruption of Learic, which referred to the nonsense verse of 19th-century writer Edward Lear, who popularized the limerick by composing 212 of them, though he himself did not use the word "limerick."

The case for the town of Limerick, which means "bare patch of ground" in Irish, is that brave souls used to improvise snatches of comic verse in front of a rowdy crowd. After each offering, the audience would respond with a chorus that concluded: "Won't you come up, come all the way up,/ Come all the way up to Limerick?" The song they sang had little to do with what we know as the limerick, but that hasn't curbed speculation that the chorus gave the form its name.

John Armstrong, in his 1963 book There Was a Young Lady Named Alice and Other Limericks, reports that at least one local was not a fan of the form – the editor of the Limerick Times around 1900. "I am sick," the editor wrote, "of obscure towns that exist ... for the sole accommodation of these so-called limerick writers – and even sicker of their residents, all of whom suffer from physical deformities and spend their time dismembering relatives and attending fancy dress balls."

Since we're in the neighbourhood, the word we know as limb began life in Old English (circa 1000) as lim, without the b. It referred not just to an arm or leg but to any organ or part of the body. The definition narrowed over time. It wasn't until the 1500s that some folks started to spell limb with a b, possibly echoing such words as dumb and comb, which had always had a b.

But – forgive me – my mind remains stuck on the limerick and its origins. A fellow from Limerick found/ His verses had such a harsh sound/ That ears would start bleedin'/ And what had been Eden/ Would turn to a bare patch of ground.

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