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"There once was a man from Nantucket" is the opening line for many limericks, in which the name of the island of Nantucket creates obscene rhymes and puns. The protagonist is typically portrayed as a well-endowed, hypersexualized persona.
The line is so well known that it has been used as a stand-alone joke, implying upcoming obscenities or taboo language.
Among the most well known are:
Followed later by:
The many ribald versions of the limerick are the basis for its lasting popularity. Many variations on the theme are possible because of the ease of rhyming Nantucket with certain vulgar phrases. The following example comes from Immortalia: An Anthology of American Ballads, Sailors' Songs, Cowboy Songs, College Songs, Parodies, Limericks, and other humorous verses and doggerel, published in 1927.
The poem has become a staple of American humor, both as an iconic example of dirty poetry and as a joking example of fine art, whose vulgarity and simple form provide an unexpected contrast to an expected refinement.
A few examples: In Woody Allen's 1966 film What's Up, Tiger Lily?, the protagonist Phil Moskowitz reads the opening line of "ancient erotic poetry": "There once was a man from Nantucket". In Steven Soderbergh's 2002 film Solaris, the male protagonist tries to impress his girlfriend with his knowledge of poet Dylan Thomas, but when she asks him for his favorite poem he comes up with "the one he is most famous for, which starts, um, 'There once was a young man from Nantucket'". The animated sitcom The Simpsons makes numerous references to the limerick, including in "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo", where Homer comments that he "once knew a man from Nantucket" but "the stories about him are greatly exaggerated". In "Diatribe of a Mad Housewife", Marge begins her book with the verse "There once was a girl from Nantucket". In the children's animated television program Hey Arnold!, Harold, as an example of his knowledge of poetry, recites "There once was a man from Nantucket", and is promptly cut off by Mr. Simmons. A similar incident occurs in the SpongeBob Squarepants episode "Squidward's School for Grown-Ups."