A limerick maker named Lear

This year marks the bicentenary of Edward Lear’s birth in 1812 (he died in 1888). He is most famous for his comic verse for children of which many were limericks. However, Lear never called his verse limericks. The word was first used after his death. No one is quite sure where it comes from.

Limericks are a short form of comic verse consisting of five lines: the first, second, and fifth have three metrical feet and rhyme together and the third and fourth have two metrical feet and rhyme together (the rhyming pattern is aabba). The genre is often subversive dealing with taboo subjects.

Some argue that the best limericks are bawdy and lewd, as in this anonymous verse:

A 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 genre also may get its humour from subverting the metre and rhyming scheme. This is one of the most famous, by W.S. Gilbert:

There was an old man of St Bees
Who was horribly stung by a wasp.
When they said: “Does it hurt?”
He replied: “No, it doesn’t –
It’s a good job it wasn’t a hornet!”

The limerick form is quite old and evolved slowly using slightly different rhyming and metre patterns. One of the earliest English verses in the limerick form appears in A Book of Madrigales for Viols and Voices in 1606:

O metaphysical Tobacco,
Fetched as far as from Morocco,
Thy searching fume
Exhales the rheum,
O metaphysical Tobacco.

Contrary to the bawdy reputation they now have, limericks owe much of their history to nursery rhymes. A great example is the well-known Hickory Dickory Dock published in the first known book of nursery rhymes, Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, in 1744:

Hickere, Dickere Dock, hickory dickery dock the mouse ran up the clock
A Mouse ran up the Clock,
The Clock Struck One,
The Mouse fell down,
And Hickere Dickere Dock.

When Edward Lear published his first book, Nonsense Verse, in 1846, he formalised and made popular the limerick form. Written for children it contained many of the now-famous illustrated limericks using a common and recognisable form: the first line following the pattern, “there was an” old/young … man/woman/person … of … a place name, and quite strict adherence to the aabba rhyme pattern and metre:

There was a Young Lady of Portugal, Image of Edward Lear's limerick ... There was a Young Lady of Portugal, Whose ideas were excessively nautical: She climbed up a tree, To examine the sea, But declared she would never leave Portugal.
Whose ideas were excessively nautical:
She climbed up a tree,
To examine the sea,
But declared she would never leave Portugal.

Lear did not differentiate this specific form of comic verse from his other verse nor did he make any claims to have invented it. Indeed it was not until 1896, eight years after Lear’s death, that we see the first use of the word limerick to describe this type of verse.

There is much speculation and a lot of uncertainty as to how the limerick got its name as there is no direct link between the verse and the Irish city of Limerick. The most commonly promoted theory is from association with a nineteenth century party game. Each participant in the game had to make up a nonsense verse in turn and between turns all the participants would sing the line, “Will you come up to Limerick?”

Another, very speculative, suggestion is that the name comes from a different party game where the players were required to make up a comical verse based on an Irish city. Limerick was so difficult to rhyme that it was adopted as the name of the game.

However, my favoured theory is that the limerick was derived from a mishearing of the adjective “learic” which changed into Limerick, perhaps from the games already mentioned. The idea of this comical form being first known as learic verse makes the most credible sense to me. It is also most fitting that Edward Lear may indirectly have given his name to the genre that his works so strongly defined.