Limerick (poetry)

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A limerick is a form of poetry,[1] especially one in five-line, predominantly anapestic[2] meter with a strict rhyme scheme (AABBA), which is sometimes obscene with humorous intent. The first, second and fifth lines are usually longer than the third and fourth. The oldest attested text in this form is a Latin prayer[3] by Thomas Aquinas of the 13th century.

Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio
Concupiscentae et libidinis exterminatio,
Caritatis et patientiae,
Humilitatis et obedientiae,
Omniumque virtutum augmentatio.[4]

The form appeared in England in the early years of the 18th century.[5] It was popularized by Edward Lear in the 19th century,[6] although he did not use the term.

The following limerick is of unknown origin:

The limerick packs laughs anatomical
Into space that is quite economical.
But the good ones I've seen
So seldom are clean
And the clean ones so seldom are comical.[7]

Gershon Legman, who compiled the largest and most scholarly anthology, held that the true limerick as a folk form is always obscene, and cites similar opinions by Arnold Bennett and George Bernard Shaw,[8] describing the clean limerick as a "periodic fad and object of magazine contests, rarely rising above mediocrity". From a folkloric point of view, the form is essentially transgressive; violation of taboo is part of its function.


An illustration of the fable of Hercules and the Wagoner by Walter Crane in the limerick collection "Baby's Own Aesop" (1887)

The standard form of a limerick is a stanza of five lines, with the first, second and fifth rhyming with one another and having three feet of three syllables each; and the shorter third and fourth lines also rhyming with each other, but having only two feet of three syllables. The defining "foot" of a limerick's meter is usually the anapaest, (ta-ta-TUM), but catalexis (missing a weak syllable at the beginning of a line) and extra-syllable rhyme (which adds an extra unstressed syllable) can make limericks appear amphibrachic (ta-TUM-ta).

The first line traditionally introduces a person and a place, with the place appearing at the end of the first line and establishing the rhyme scheme for the second and fifth lines. In early limericks, the last line was often essentially a repeat of the first line, although this is no longer customary.

Within the genre, ordinary speech stress is often distorted in the first line, and may be regarded as a feature of the form: "There was a young man from the coast;" "There once was a girl from Detroit…" Legman takes this as a convention whereby prosody is violated simultaneously with propriety.[9] Exploitation of geographical names, especially exotic ones, is also common, and has been seen as invoking memories of geography lessons in order to subvert the decorum taught in the schoolroom; Legman finds that the exchange of limericks is almost exclusive to comparatively well-educated males, women figuring in limericks almost exclusively as "villains or victims". The most prized limericks incorporate a kind of twist, which may be revealed in the final line or lie in the way the rhymes are often intentionally tortured, or both. Many limericks show some form of internal rhyme, alliteration or assonance, or some element of word play.

Verses in limerick form are sometimes combined with a refrain to form a limerick song, a traditional humorous drinking song often with obscene verses.

The limerick’s an art form complex
Whose contents run chiefly to sex;
 It’s famous for virgins
 And masculine urgin’s
And vulgar erotic effects.

David Abercrombie, a phonetician, takes a different view of the limerick, and one which seems to accord better with the form.[10] It is this: Lines one, two, and five have three feet, that is to say three stressed syllables, while lines three and four have two stressed syllables. The number and placement of the unstressed syllables is rather flexible. There is at least one unstressed syllable between the stresses but there may be more – as long as there are not so many as to make it impossible to keep the equal spacing of the stresses. (See “the young man of Japan”, below.) As an example, in first line of the limerick given above, there are three unstressed syllables between the first and second stresses, two between the second and third, but only one unstressed syllable before the first stress. There may or may not be an unstressed syllable (or, rarely, two) after the final stress of the line. In the example above there are unstressed syllables at the end of lines three and four but not at the end of the remaining lines.

Moreover, it is intrinsic to the limerick that there be a silent stress at the end of lines one, three, and five. A silent stress occurs when the reader undergoes the physiological changes associated with a stress but without any sound. To understand this, imagine that a drum is struck each time there is a stress. Then, in English verse, the drum beats would be equally spaced, regardless of the number of unstressed syllables that separate them. However, in reading a limerick, after the third beat of the first line, the next beat falls at the end of the line, not on the first stress of the second line. Thus, it is perhaps better to think of the limerick as having four stresses (the final one silent) in lines one, two, and five – and two stresses, of course, in lines three and four.

Origin of the name[edit]

The origin of the name limerick for this type of poem is debated. As of several years ago, its usage was first documented in England in 1898 (New English Dictionary) and in the United States in 1902, but in recent years[when?] several earlier uses have been documented. The name is generally taken to be a reference to the City or County of Limerick in Ireland[11][12] sometimes particularly to the Maigue Poets, and may derive from an earlier form of nonsense verse parlour game that traditionally included a refrain that included "Will [or won't] you come (up) to Limerick?"[13]

The earliest known use of the term limerick for this type of poem is an 1880 reference, in a Saint John, New Brunswick newspaper, to an apparently well-known tune,[14]

There was a young rustic named Mallory,
who drew but a very small salary.
  When he went to the show,
  his purse made him go
to a seat in the uppermost gallery.

Tune: Won't you come to Limerick.[15]

Edward Lear[edit]

A Book of Nonsense (ca. 1875 James Miller edition) by Edward Lear

The limerick form was popularized by Edward Lear in his first Book of Nonsense (1846) and a later work, More Nonsense, Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, etc. (1872). Lear wrote 212 limericks, mostly considered nonsense literature. It was customary at the time for limericks to accompany an absurd illustration of the same subject, and for the final line of the limerick to be a variant of the first line ending in the same word, but with slight differences that create a nonsensical, circular effect. The humor is not in the "punch line" ending but rather in the tension between meaning and its lack.[16]

The following is an example of one of Edward Lear's limericks.

There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her.
  But she seized on the cat,
  and said 'Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!'

Lear's limericks were often typeset in three or four lines, according to the space available under the accompanying picture.


The idiosyncratic link between spelling and pronunciation in the English language is explored in this Scottish example (where the name Menzies is pronounced /ˈmɪŋɪs/ MING-iss).

A lively young damsel named Menzies
Inquired: "Do you know what this thenzies?"
  Her aunt, with a gasp,
  Replied: "It's a wasp,
And you're holding the end where the stenzies."[17]

The limerick form is so well known that it can be parodied in fairly subtle ways. These parodies are sometimes called anti-limericks. The following example, of unknown origin, subverts the structure of the true limerick by changing the number of syllables in the lines.

There was a young man of Japan
Whose limericks never would scan.
  When asked why this was,
  He replied "It's because
I always try to fit as many syllables into the last line as ever I possibly can."

Other anti-limericks follow the meter of a limerick but deliberately break the rhyme scheme, like the following example, attributed to W.S. Gilbert, in a parody of a limerick by Lear:

There was an old man of St. Bees,
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp,
  When asked, "Does it hurt?"
  He replied, "No, it doesn't,
I'm so glad that it wasn't a hornet."[18][19]

Comedian John Clarke has also parodied Lear's style:

There was an old man with a beard,
A funny old man with a beard
  He had a big beard
  A great big old beard
That amusing old man with a beard.[20]

Web Cartoonist Zach Weiner, author of SMBC-Comics, wrote a reversed limerick that makes sense read top-to-bottom, and vice versa.

This limerick goes in reverse
  Unless I'm remiss
  The neat thing is this:
If you start from the bottom-most verse
This limerick's not any worse[21]

The British wordplay and recreational mathematics expert Leigh Mercer (1893–1977) devised the following mathematical limerick:

	\frac{12 + 144 + 20 + 3 \sqrt{4}}{7} + (5 \times 11) = 9^2+0

This is read as follows:

A dozen, a gross, and a score
Plus three times the square root of four
Divided by seven
Plus five times eleven
Is nine squared and not a bit more.[22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Limerick Lyrics. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  2. ^ Cuddon, J.A. (1999). The Penguin dictionary of literary terms and literary theory (4. ed.). London [u.a.]: Penguin Books. p. 458. ISBN 978-0140513639. 
  3. ^ Jean Harrowven. 1976. The Limerick Makers. London, p. 13.
  4. ^ Let it be for the elimination for my sins, For the expulsion of desire and lust, [And] for the increase of charity and patience, Humility and obedience, As well as all the virtue.
  5. ^ An interesting and highly esoteric verse in limerick form is found in the diary of the Rev. John Thomlinson (1692–1761): 1717. Sept. 17th. One Dr. Bainbridge went from Cambridge to Oxon [Oxford] to be astronomy professor, and reading a lecture happened to say de Polis et Axis, instead of Axibus. Upon which one said, Dr. Bainbridge was sent from Cambridge,—to read lectures de Polis et Axis; but lett them that brought him hither, return him thither, and teach him his rules of syntaxis. From Six North Country Diaries, Publications of the Surtees Society, Vol. CXVIII for the year MCMX, p. 78. Andrews & Co., Durham, etc. 1910.
  6. ^ Brandreth, page 108
  7. ^ Feinberg, Leonard. The Secret of Humor. Rodopi, 1978. ISBN 9789062033706. p102
  8. ^ Legman 1988, pp. x-xi.
  9. ^ Legman 1988, p. xliv.
  10. ^ Abercrombie, David, Studies in Phonetics and Linguistics 1965 Oxford University Press: Chapter 3 A Phonetician's View of Verse Structure.
  11. ^ Loomis 1963, pp. 153–157.
  12. ^ "Siar sna 70idí 1973 Lios Tuathail - John B Keane, Limericks, Skinheads". YouTube. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  13. ^ The phrase "come to Limerick" is known in American Slang since the Civil War, as documented in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang and subsequent posts on the American Dialect Society List. One meaning for the phrase, proposed by Stephen Goranson on ADS-list, would be a reference to the Treaty of Limerick, and mean surrender, settle, get to the point, get with the program.
  14. ^ reported by Stephen Goranson on the ADS-list and in comments at the Oxford Etymologist blog
  15. ^ Saint John Daily News, Saint John, New Brunswick Edward Willis, Proprietor Tuesday Nov 30, 1880 Vol. XLII, no. 281 page 4, column 5 [headline:] Wise and Otherwise
  16. ^ Tigges, Wim. "The Limerick: The Sonnet of Nonsense?". Explorations in the Field of Nonsense. ed. Wim Tigges. 1987. page 117
  17. ^ "Why is Menzies pronounced Mingis?". BBC News. 2006-01-10. Retrieved 2010-01-05. 
  18. ^ Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  19. ^ Wells 1903, pp. xix-xxxiii.
  20. ^ "Craig Brown: The Lost Diaries". the Guardian. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  21. ^ "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal". Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  22. ^ "Math Mayhem". Retrieved 2011-06-29. 


  • Baring-Gould, William Stuart and Ceil Baring-Gould (1988). The Annotated Mother Goose, Random House.
  • Brandreth, Gyles (1986). Everyman's Word Games
  • Cohen, Gerald (compiler) (2010). "Stephen Goranson's research into _limerick_: a preliminary report". Comments on Etymology vol. 40, no. 1-2. (October–November 2010) pages 2–11.
  • Legman, Gershon (1964). The Horn Book, University Press.
  • Legman, Gershon (1988). The Limerick, Random House.
  • Loomis, C. Grant (1963). Western Folklore, Vol. 22, No. 3 (July, 1963).
  • Wells, Carolyn (1903). A Nonsense Anthology, Charles Scribner's Sons.

External links[edit]

Limerick bibliographies: