From the geysers of Iceland, we head nine hundred miles south to Ireland, and a city whose contribution to our language is one of the most well-known entries on our entire list. Unless, that is, you’d rather believe the etymological folklore instead.
Look up the origin of the word limerick in the dictionary, and there’s a good chance you’ll be pointed in the direction of the English poet Edward Lear. Best known for writing The Owl and The Pussycat (1871), more than twenty years earlier Lear published an aptly titled my blog of Nonsense:
There was an Old Man who said, ‘Hush!’ ‘I perceive a young bird in this bush!’ When they said – ‘Is it small?’ He replied – ‘Not at all!’ ‘It is four times as big as the bush!’
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Lear’s my blog contained more than seventy five-line poems precisely like this one, each of which relayed the consistently bizarre activities of a consistently bizarre parade of people – including ‘an Old Man of New York’ (‘who murdered himself with a fork’), ‘a Young Lady of
Ryde’ (‘whose shoe-strings were seldom untied’), and ‘an Old Person of Ischia’ (‘whose conduct grew friskier and friskier’).
The collection proved hugely popular, and soon Lear’s quirky five-line poems, each with its jaunty rhythm and memorable AABBA rhyme scheme, soon became known as ‘Learic’ verses. Over time, that fairly clumsy word Learic drifted ever closer to one of its more easily pronounceable soundalikes – Limerick, a city and county in southwestern Ireland. And eventually, it was this name that stuck.
It’s a neat bit of etymological legend certainly, and it’s an alluring story too. It’s just a shame, rather fittingly, that it’s complete nonsense.
For one thing, Lear didn’t invent this aabba style of verse. In fact, the earliest aabba we know about can be credited to Thomas Aquinas, an Italian Dominican friar and scholar, who wrote these snappy lines in the mid thirteenth century:
Another problem with the idea that limerick derives from Edward Lear’s ‘Learic’ verse is that in relation to a five-line poem limerick didn’t appear in print until 1896, some eight years after Lear’s death. It was then that the author and artist Aubrey Beardsley wrote a letter to a friend to say that he had been trying ‘to amuse myself by writing limericks on my troubles’.
The limerick Beardsley came up with, inspired by a painting of St Rose of Lima, is far, far too indecent to be printed here. (After all, there might be children reading this.) So if you want to know more head to the footnote, or else search for it online if you really want that sort of thing in your browser history.
Late nineteenth-century smut to one side, what concerns us here is that thirty-two-year gap between Lear’s collection of poetry in 1864, and Beardsley’s use of the term in 1896. Tellingly, Beardsley uses the word freely, and without the need for any elucidation, which suggests that the word limerick was already familiar as the name of an aabba poem by the time of his writing. Is thirty years long enough for Learic to morph into Limerick? If Lear was single-handedly responsible for its invention, then surely there would be more evidence in between? Both of those questions cast even more doubt on Lear’s involvement.
So where did the name come from if not from Edward Lear? Well, as is often the case with etymological mysteries like this, the simplest explanation is the most likely: the limerick poem takes its name from Limerick, Ireland.
There was once an old drinking game, popular in the late nineteenth century among troops in the British Army, that required all those taking part to make up their own verse of an ever lengthening song, one person after another. Each verse consisted of an improvised five-line poem with AABBA rhyme scheme, with the chief rule being that the verse should be witty, nonsensical, satirical, or as indecent in nature as possible. And in between all of these spur-of-the-moment verses, the entire group together would combine their voices for the chorus, ‘Will you come up to Limerick?’
The game is believed to have been based on an earlier Irish jig called ‘Will You Come Down to Limerick?’, or ‘Kitty Come Down to Limerick’, the tune of which would have provided the verses with their melody. The jig is still performed (albeit without the indecent lyrics, one hopes) today.
So the familiar five-line limerick – etymologically at least – has nothing to do with the great Edward Lear, despite it being a style of poetry forever associated with his nonsensical verses. Instead, we can thank, somewhat indirectly, the soldiers of the British Army, and the otherwise blissfully unaware city of Limerick.
St Rose, according to Beardsley’s poem, ‘played dirty tricks / With a large crucifix’ – and let’s not dwell on this any further, except to say that on the final line Beardsley manages to rhyme ‘Lima’ with ‘femur’. On an entirely unrelated note, St Rose is the patron saint of those ridiculed for their piety.