Q From James Grainger: It has for many years puzzled me that the verse form should be known as a limerick. Can you help?
A Your puzzlement has long been shared by historians of language.
Two limericks from the first collection ever compiled, originally published in 1820.
Limericks are associated particularly with Edward Lear, so much so that references to him often say that he has been called “the poet laureate of the limerick”, though I can’t find out who said it and I suspect that nobody really knows. His limerick fame rests on four books for children that he wrote and illustrated, the first being A Book of Nonsense in 1846. It was only when its third edition appeared in 1861, the first with his name attached as author, that it became at all well known. The last of the four was published in 1876.
Lear didn’t invent the form. In the 1830s, he often stayed at Knowsley Hall, a country house near Liverpool, where he had been engaged to record and illustrate the private menagerie of Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby. He found there a book of limericks that had been published by John Marshall in 1822 with the title Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen. Two years earlier, two other volumes had appeared: Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies and The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women. It is probable that these publications employed a form that was already current in popular culture. The best-known limerick in the 1822 Anecdotes and Adventures — it was hinted at by Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend — gave Lear the idea of writing limericks to accompany his illustrations for children:
There was a sick man of Tobago
Who lived long on rice-gruel and sago;
But at last, to his bliss,
The physician said this —
“To a roast leg of mutton you may go.”
That’s an excellent early example of the type, by the way, because it has five distinct rhymes, a story and a punchline. Most didn’t, including those in Sixteen Wonderful Old Women, those of Edward Lear in particular repeating the rhyme and sense of the first line in the last, rendering them weak and anticlimactic by comparison.
Examples of the verses, in English
and Gaelic, from John O’Daly’s book
The form is often claimed to be older. Modern books about Ireland link it to the eighteenth century Filí na Máighe, Gaelic poets of the Maigue, based in a pub in Croom, County Limerick. Two members of the group were Seán Ó’Tuama and Aindrias MacCraith, who jousted in verses with limerick metre. These were translated into English by the poet James Clarence Mangan, and appear in both languages in John O’Daly’s The Poets and Poetry of Munster of 1850. This was before Edward Lear’s work became widely known, of course.
Neither Lear nor O’Daly nor Marshall nor the Gaelic poets of the Maigue called these poems limericks — the term was unknown to them. In the three books of the 1820s, they were termed “anecdotes” or “histories”; Lear named them “nonsenses” or “old persons”. Others just called them “nonsense rhymes”. The first known appearance of limerick for them is in a letter of 1896 by the artist and illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.
One writer in 1898 specifically links limerick not with the sedate verses of men such as Lear but with the “indecent nonsense verse” that we now often associate with the term. It is probably not a coincidence that Beardsley, a famous illustrator of the grotesquely erotic, should have used it. The American folkforist Gershon Legman argued (in The Horn Book: Studies in Erotic Folklore and Bibliography of 1964) that the true form of the limerick was the obscene sort and links its early rise to “a group of college wits and clubmen, notably the poet Swinburne; an army officer, Capt. Edward Sellon, and the war-correspondent, George Augustus Sala”, who submitted bawdy and sacrilegious limericks to a Punch contest in the early 1860s. It wasn’t likely that people called them limericks so early, but an association with material that could only circulate privately might explain why it first turns up long after the mid-century heyday of the form.
In O’Daly’s book the verses are headed by “Air: The Growling Old Woman”, which shows that they were intended to be sung, not recited. That won't surprise anybody who has come across various drinking songs that involve limericks, with choruses such as “That was a jolly good song. Sing us another one, just like the other one, sing us another one, do”.
It also agrees with the comment in the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for limerick that the name came “from a custom at convivial parties, according to which each member sang an extemporized ‘nonsense-verse’, which was followed by a chorus containing the words ‘Will you come up to Limerick?’.” This seems to have been based on a description that was printed in Notes and Queries in 1898, four years before the OED’s entry appeared (as a curious coincidence, it was written by J H Murray, an Edinburgh man who was a near namesake of the famous editor of the OED, who was J A H Murray). He wrote: “Certain it is that a song has existed in Ireland for a very considerable time, the construction of the verse of which is identical with that of Lear’s”. He went on to describe the custom at convivial parties:
One member of the party started a verse, and when he had concluded the whole assembly joined in the chorus. Then the next performer started a second verse, and so on until each one had contributed a verse; repetitions were not allowed, and forfeits were extracted from those who could not fulfil the conditions. This meant that each one had to supply an original verse of his own.
Notes and Queries, 9th Series, Vol 2, 10 December 1898.
The writer adds that the chorus consisted of the repeated lines “Will you come up, come up? / Will you come up to Limerick?”. Stephen Goranson, a librarian at Duke University, North Carolina, has found a related reference from the other side of the Atlantic from 18 years earlier:
There was a young rustic named Mallory, who drew but a very small salary. When he went to a show, his purse made him go to a seat in the uppermost gallery. Tune, wont you come to Limerick.
St John Daily News (New Brunswick), 30 Nov. 1880.
The tune mentioned in the newspaper item and by implication in the Notes and Queries comment is presumably the traditional jig that’s often called Will You Come Down To Limerick (“up” and “down” seem to be interchangeable or omitted at will). It appeared under that title in the famous collection Music of Ireland by Captain Francis O’Neill, published in Chicago in 1903. The implication is that the poems began to be called Limerick verses from the chorus or the title of the jig, a name that was later shortened.
So, we have two main possibilities for the origin of limerick. The obvious one is that the name comes from the verses written by the men of County Limerick. But if that’s so, why didn’t the name appear much earlier than it did? I’m sure they only became at all known after limerick had entered the language and writers began to search around for its source, seizing on the Filí na Máighe without looking too deeply into dating or chains of communication. The other possibility is that the name was taken from the chorus or title of the jig.
Stephen Goranson argues from the Newfoundland newspaper item that this latter possibility is the correct one, but that the association came about in North America. He suggests that the chorus or the jig derived from the long-dead idiom come to Limerick (sometimes bring to Limerick), which was first recorded in 1860 but became army slang in the US Civil War. This was a challenge to somebody to come to the point, make himself clear, face the music or submit, as here in an early example:
Corporal Thomas B. Thompson [of Indiana] ... discovered a sesesh hid under a bush pile lying in a stream of water, and nearly frozen — made him “come to Limerick” and show where his gun was concealed.
Western Sun, 1 Mar. 1862, quoted in the Indiana Magazine of History, 1934. Sesesh is Civil War slang, a short form of secessionist, an inhabitant of the southern states that seceded from the Union.
After Lear’s first book was republished in 1861, it was soon made available in the US, as in this edition published in New York. Other books, borrowing his limerick form, appeared during the Civil War.
Goranson suggests that the slang phrase might be a reference to the Civil War in Ireland, concluded at Limerick in 1691, though that’s a big leap of conjecture as there’s no written evidence for it and the gap between 1691 and 1860 is a big one. However, we have otherwise no idea why it should mention Limerick. He argues that the jig’s chorus was based on the Civil War slang term, which was still around in the 1880s, and was intended as a challenge to the next versifier to do better than the last one or give up the attempt.
His hypothesis is intriguing but it builds an edifice of conjecture on the shaky foundation of an isolated Canadian newspaper reference. If it was an American creation, we have to find out how it got back across the Atlantic to the UK and why the earliest North American example of limerick so far known dates from 1898, two years after it appeared in the UK.
As matters stand, the idea that the name was taken from the chorus or title of the jig that accompanied these extemporary verses seems the most likely. However, the chorus was known on both sides of the Atlantic and Mr Murray’s comment in Notes and Queries (“the song has existed in Ireland for a very considerable time”) implies that it predates the 1880 newspaper reference. It could just as easily have been taken to North America by Irish immigrants as brought back the other way. Add in the earliest examples of the term being from the UK and limerick would more probably have appeared first in Britain.
Since simpler explanations are generally better than complicated ones, I feel that a British origin remains the most likely suggestion.