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Edward Lear Home Page

Arthur Deex
The Assent of Limerick

It is accepted today by virtually all limerick scholars that, short of a spectacular revelation, we will never know the origins of the use of the word Limerick to describe the five line verse. For a century, limerick enthusiasts have groped and conjectured without any real success. The verses were known as nonsense verses one day -- and the next, as limericks. It was as simple as that.

Bill Backe-Hansen, in a marvelous article ("The Origin of the Limerick as we Know it,'' The Pentatette, September 1987) traces the serious and sometimes outlandish theories.

I will attempt to flesh out that transition from nonsense verse to limerick as best I can, not unlike the sculptor turned anthropologist who daubs clay on some prehistoric fossilized skull to give us a glimpse at our hominid ancestor.

The clues are few and far between:

An exchange of letters between Ambrose Beardsley and Leonard Smithers in 1896 and 1897 shows their familiarity with the word limerick. Beardsley's 1896 bawdy limerick (Ecstasy of St. Rose of Lima), although not identified as a limerick, is the first complete limerick by a person who knew and used the term.

In October 1898 Cambridge University students knew the word and used it to refer to two verses in The Cantab.

An exchange of comments appeared in Notes and Queries in November and December 1898 with respect to the connection between the word and the verse. James A. H. Murray, founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, associated the word limerick strictly with ``indecent nonsense verse.'' He went on to speak of Ireland and the long-standing custom there of drinking and reciting.

Theories of French songs and the Limerick Brigade notwithstanding, my theory goes something like this:

Lear's books of nonsense verse were known to everyone in the English speaking world by the end of the nineteenth century. A number of wags had already begun turning out bawdy verses (some based on Lear's verses) that we would recognize today as limericks and probably do. Following Lear's example, the bawdy verses were geographically oriented: The old man from _____; The lady from ______.

Pub habituals incorporated these bawdy nonsense verses into their Saturday night ritual. A participant would sing a verse associated with a specific town, probably working down the coast or working through the alphabet. If you failed to meet your associates expectations it was chug-a-lug. Unrhymable Limerick could always be counted on for a spectacular failure -- only salvageable by a really gross verse. And so the bawdy nonsense verses came to be called Limericks.

No other town or city was as troublesome as Limerick, not Aberystwth, not East Wubley, not Shrovetide, not Greenwich.

Well into this century, the name was always capitalized. It is still spoken with reverence at many gatherings, especially where strange colored liquid is consumed. Oddly enough, university students are still singing limericks and still chug-a-lugging.

Can any of this be proved? Unfortunately, no. Is it plausible? Definitely. Will this theory survive? Until a better one comes along.

Ockam's razor tells us that the simplest of competing theories is preferable and that an explanation should first be attempted in terms of what is already known.

This theory explains why the Limerick/verse association was so slow to appear in Victorian print (and then without an appreciation for its meaning or usage), how it spread so quickly before it surfaced, and why it came to be mistakenly connected with Irish origins.

(From The Pentatette, the Newsletter of the Limerick Special Interest Group, XIII.1, October 1993.)

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