A limerick is a form of poetry, especially one in five-line anapesticmeter 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 form can be found in England as of the early years of the 18th century. It was popularized by Edward Lear in the 19th century, although he did not use the term.
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, 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.
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. 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.
A notable Limerick - which won an Irish 'Listowel Writers Week' prize in 1998 - exemplifies the structure:
Writing a Limerick's absurd,
Line one and line five rhyme in word,
And just as you've reckoned
They rhyme with the second;
The fourth line must rhyme with the third.
Origin of the name
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 several earlier uses have been documented. The name is generally taken to be a reference to the City or County of Limerick in Ireland 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?"
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,
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 (1845) and a later work (1872) on the same theme. Lear wrote 212 limericks, mostly nonsense verse. 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 kind of conclusion, usually a variant of the first line ending in the same word.
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.
And you're holding the end where the stenzies."
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:
^Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition, 1989), s.v. Limerick. Vaughn, Stanton. Limerick Lyrics. 1900. Retrieved from .
^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.
^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.
^reported by Stephen Goranson on the ADS-list and in comments at the Oxford Etymologist blog
^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