On this festive St. Patrick’s Day let’s lift a glass of green beer and pay tribute to the Irish origins of the verse form that everybody loves (except those who hate it)—the limerick! Of course, it has something to do with the Irish county of Limerick but no one seems to know exactly what. The name of the county itself probably derives from the phrase Loch Luimnigh, which means the “lake beside a barren spot of land.” It was a pre-Viking settlement as early as 561 A.D.
The verse came somewhat later, in the eighteenth century, and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, probably had its origin in “convivial” pub parties at which it was customary for guests, at the height of their conviviality, to compose salacious verses, raucously sung and ending in the line “Will you come up to Limerick?” The first documented use of the word limerick to describe the verse was in the 1898 book Illustrated Limericks.
Although not known as such until later, the verse form was favored in the eighteenth century by a group known as the Maigue Poets, clustered around the River Maigue in County Limerick. Based on a medieval English pattern, it has five lines in a rhyme scheme of AABBA, with three metrical feet in the first, second, and fifth lines, and two in the third and fourth. One of the first examples was by a pub owner named Sean O’Tuama, who wrote:
I sell the best brandy and sherry,
To make all my customers merry,
But at times their finances
Run short as it chances,
And then I feel very sad, very.
Although the limerick historically tends to be bawdy, the best known popularizer of the form in the nineteenth century, Edward Lear, wrote squeaky clean ones that you could read in (most) Sunday school classes. This is one of Lear’s best:
There was an Old Man who supposed
That the street door was partially closed,
But some very large rats
Ate his coat and his hats
While that futile old gentleman dozed.
The racy nature of the earlier and later limerick was characterized by Morris Bishop:
The limerick is furtive and mean;
You mus keep her in close quarantine,
Or she sneaks to the slums
And promptly becomes
Disorderly, drunk, and obscene.
Or, as another, unknown wag put it:
The limerick yields laughs anatomical,
In a form that is quite economical,
And the good ones I’ve seen
Are so seldom clean,
And the clean ones are so seldom comical.
Incidentally, this and much more limerick lore can be found in my book that used be known as Words Gone Wild, but has been recently reissued and is now widely available under the alias Puns, Puzzles, and Word Play.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou dabbles in limericks, which he cloaks in meretriciously pseudo-literary garb in a vain attempt to mask their vile disreputability:
Did you hear about poor Julius Caesar?
He just can’t admit he’s a geezer;
Making to love to Calpurnia,
He developed a hernia
Attempting some tricks that might please her.
A Shakespearean actor named Seth
Liked to do it till quite out of breath.
He had fun with Ophelia,
And the same with Cordelia,
But was stymied by Lady Macbeth.
In 1 Henry IV is recorded
What Prince Hal and a comely young whore did,
They began in Act One,
By Act Five they were done—
What occurred in between was quite sordid.
Better stop the Bard here before his disgusting utterances turn completely unprintable.