Jest for Pun logo What is a Limerick?

Limerick, a popular form of short, humorous verse, often nonsensical and
frequently ribald. It consists of five lines, rhyming aabba, and the dominant metre is anapestic, with two feet in the third and fourth lines and three feet in the others.  {If you have no idea anapestic metre is or are wondering about why so many feet are stomping about your limerick click here.}  

The origin of the limerick is unknown, but it has been suggested that the name derives from the chorus of an 18th-century Irish soldiers' song, "Will You Come Up to Limerick?" To this were added impromptu verses crowded with improbable incident and subtle innuendo.

The first collections of limericks in English date from about 1820. Edward Lear, who composed and illustrated those in his Book of Nonsense (1846),
claimed to have gotten the idea from a nursery rhyme beginning "There was an old man of Tobago." A typical example from Lear's collection is this verse:

There was an Old Man who supposed
That the street door was partially closed;
But some very large rats
Ate his coats and his hats,
While that futile Old Gentleman dozed.

Toward the end of the 19th century, many noted men of letters indulged in
the form. W.S. Gilbert displayed his skill in a sequence of limericks that
Sir Arthur Sullivan set as the familiar song in The Sorcerer (1877):

My name is John Wellington Wells,
I'm a dealer in magic and spells,
In blessings and curses,
And ever-fill'd purses,
In prophecies, witches, and knells.

The form acquired widespread popularity in the early years of the 20th
century, and limerick contests were often held by magazines and business
houses. The true limerick addict, however, turned to more complicated verse,
such as this anonymous tongue twister:

A tutor who taught on the flute
Tried to teach two tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tutor,
"Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?"

Others wrote limericks in French or Latin, exploited the anomalies of English spelling, or used the form for pithy observations upon serious philosophical concerns.

Copyright 1994-1999 Encyclopędia Britannica

Check out's new Facebook Page

Back to Limericks Index