Limerick (poetry)

From Academic Kids

This article is about the poetic form. For other uses of the name, see Limerick (disambiguation).

A limerick is a short, often humorous and ribald poem developed to a very specific structure.



The rhyme scheme is usually aabba, with a rather rigid meter. The first, second, and fifth lines are three metrical feet; the third and fourth two metrical feet. The rhythm is usually considered an anapestic foot, two short syllables and then a long, the reverse of dactyl rhythm. However, many substitutions are common.

The first line traditionally introduces a person and a location, and usually ends with the name of the location, though sometimes with that of the person. A true limerick is supposed to have a kind of twist to it. This may lie in the final line, or it may lie in the way the rhymes are often intentionally tortured, or in both. Though not a strict requirement, the best limericks are usually those that additionally show some form of internal rhyme, often alliteration, sometimes assonance or another form of rhyme.


Early examples

Sections in poems following the limerick form can be found throughout known history, from the work of Greek classic poets to the first known English popular song, Sumer is icumen in (c. 1300) and the works of Shakespeare (Othello, King Lear, The Tempest and Hamlet all contain limericks within longer segments). The first deliberate creation to match limerick form is usually considered Tom o' Bedlam (c. 1600):

From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend thee
And the spirit that stands
by the naked man,
In the book of the moons defend yee.

Edward Lear

Other examples can be discovered from the 18th century. The first book of limericks, though they were not yet named thus, is The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women (1820), followed by the Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen (1822). But the form was popularised by Edward Lear, who has been grandiloquently dubbed "The Poet Laureate of the Limerick", in his A Book of Nonsense (1845) and a later work (1872) on the same theme. In all Lear wrote 212 limericks, mostly aimed towards nonsense. In his time limericks accompanied an illustration on the same subject, and the final line of the limerick was a kind of conclusion, which usually was a variant of the first, ending in the same word. This is different from the punchline or twist of the modern limerick, that usually has a proper rhyme. Since Lear's limericks are the best-known examples of the classical limerick, and since these poems were not yet called "Limericks", some have retroactively named them Learics, as they are not true limericks in the modern sense of the word. An example:

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 lines or four lines.)

Origin of the name

The origins of the actual word limerick is obscure. The first known occurrence is from May 1896; the OED first reports it in 1898. The name is often linked to an earlier form of nonsense verse which was traditionally followed by the refrain that ended "…come all the way up to Limerick?", Limerick being an Irish town. That the older refrain does not match the meter of the limerick has been used to attack this theory. A point in favour, however, is the fact that in other languages, limericks are indeed sung, with wordless (la-la) refrains between them that match a version of this text.

Well-known authors

Ogden Nash is renowned for humorous short poetry, and often used the limerick form:

There once was a miser named Clarence
Who Simonized both of his parents;
"The initial expense,"
he remarked, "is immense,
But it saves on the wearance and tearance."

For reasons of decency, many collections consist entirely of innocent examples. Amongst the exceptions are several collections by the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who edited Lecherous Limericks (1975), More Lecherous Limericks (1976), Still More Lecherous Limericks (1977), Limericks Too Gross (1978) and A Grossery of Limericks (1981).

Among earlier writers of more serious literature who have indulged in limerick-writing is the 19th-century novelist and illustrator George du Maurier, who was responsible for this Anglo-French example:

Chaque pays a ses grands noms sonores;
Or, de tous ces dfunts cockolores
Le moral Fnlon,
Michel-Ange, et Johnson
(Le Docteur) sont les plus awful bores.

In 1970, New York's Brandywine Press published The Limerick, a canonical work of bawdy limericks compiled by folklore scholar Gershon Legman (1917-1999), which had previously been printed only in Europe. This was followed by The New Limerick in 1977 (later re-released under the title More Limericks.) The former volume contained more than 1700 verses, the latter about 2700.

Recurring themes

Ribald verses

Definitely a recurring theme is the indecent subjects of many limericks. It is often considered that the less innocent limericks are amongst the best, and the most common:

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.


The island of Nantucket has also been a recurring theme in limericks, including the following, which is likely the best-known of all poems in the form:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all of his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

The current popularity of "Nantucket" in limericks no doubt mostly stems from the possibility to rhyme it with obscenities. For example, autofellatio is the topic of many limericks whose dominant rhyme is 'Nantucket'. The second line of such limericks is typically something like "Whose dick was so long he could suck it."

It has been suggested, though, that in the past another factor was the popularity of the limerick among whalers.

Uttoxeter and Exeter

Similarly Uttoxeter and Exeter have been used as the inspiration for hundreds of limericks:

There was a fair maiden of Exeter,
So pretty that guys craned their necks at her.
One was even so brave
as to take out and wave
The distinguishing mark of his sex at her.


The limerick is often spelled to make the ending match in orthography as well as pronunciation, especially when the spelling of one of the words is bizarre:

There was a young curate of Salisbury
Whose manners were quite Halisbury-Scalisbury
He wandered round Hampshire
Without any pampshire
Till the Vicar compelled him to Warisbury

Note: Salisbury is known to locals as Sarum, Hampshire as Hants, giving:

There was a young curate of Sarum
Whose manners were quite harem-scarem (Halisbury-Scalisbury)
He wandered round Hants (Hampshire)
Without any pants (pampshire)
Till the Vicar compelled him to Wear'em (Warisbury)

By further contortion, this can even be extended to the beginning:

A bdellium bdiamond of beauty
Was bdisplayed in a shop in Bdjibouti.
I bought it, then came
A bdelicate bdame
I'm her suitor now, and she my suitee.


There is a sub-genre of poems that take the twist of the Limerick and apply it to the Limerick itself. These are sometimes called anti-limericks.


Some lead the listener into expectation of a rhyme, often indecent, which actually is not used.

There was a young lady from Bude
Who went for a swim in the lake
A man in a punt
Stuck an oar in her ear
And said "You can't swim here, it's private."


There once was an athlete of Venice
Who liked to play matches of tennis
When a ball hit him hard
He went to a ward
Where a doctor did cut off his foot.

Another limerick, attributed to composer Arthur Sullivan, replaces the rhyme with association:

There was a young man of St Bees
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp
They asked, "Does it hurt?"
He replied, "No it doesn't"
I'm glad that it wasn't a hornet


Others subvert the structure of the true limerick.

There was a young bard from Japan
Whose limericks never would scan.
When asked why this was,
He said 'It's because
I always try to get as many words in the last line as I possibly can.'


A limerick fan from Australia
Regarded his work as a failure:
His verses were fine
Until the fourth line.

This is taken a stage further by this pair of verses:

There was a young man of Arnoux
Whose limericks stopped at line two

...and by extension...

There was a young man of Verdun

...which if completed would be a self-contradiction.

The third member of this pair would be the limerick about the young man from Saint Paul, which would be self-contradictory if it were told at all.

Limericks in other languages than English

Although limericks have been written in a great number of different languages, many of these suffer from the fact that the meter of the limerick does not adapt well to such languages as, for example, French or Latin. Good limericks can be written in languages that have a similar natural rhythm as English.

The following example is in Icelandic:

egar lki er glaseygt, svo glampar ,
og grnum er eitthva, sem skvampar ,
enda nefbroddur rauur
-- er dninn ei dauur --
heldur drekkur hann of miki Campari.

A French example, from 1715:

On s'tonne ici que Caliste
Ait pris l'habit de Moliniste
Puisque cette jeune beaut
Ote chacun sa libert
N'est-ce pas une Janseniste?

And another French example:

Y avait un jeune homme de Dijon
Qui se foutait de toute religion.
Il a dit, "Quant à moi,
Je déteste les trois:
Le Père, et le Fils, et le Pigeon."

An example in Swedish, attributed to Hans Alfredson:

Det var en ung dam ifrn Grnna
som stjrten s hrt kunde spnna
att hon i detta hl
kunde strypa en l
och till och med vssa en penna

(There was a young lady from Grnna / who her butt so hard could strain / that she in this hole / could strangle an eel / and even sharpen a pen)

The dodoitsu is a short sometimes comic Japanese poem known as a Japanese limerick.

See also

External links

Limericks Online:

Books available from Gutenberg:

eo:Limeriko fy:Limerick he:חמשיר nl:Limerick (dichtvorm) pl:Limeryk ro:Limericks


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