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Poetry Guide: Limerick Poetry

A limerick is a short, often humorous and ribald poem developed to a very specific structure.


The rhyme scheme is usually aabba, with a rather rigid meter. The first, second, and fifth lines are three metrical feet; the third and fourth two metrical feet. The foot used is usually the amphibrach, a stressed syllable between two unstressed ones. However it can be considered an anapestic foot, two short syllables and then a long, the reverse of dactyl rhythm. However, many substitutions are common.

The first line traditionally introduces a person and a location, and usually ends with the name of the location, though sometimes with that of the person. A true limerick is supposed to have a kind of twist to it. This may lie in the final line, or it may lie in the way the rhymes are often intentionally tortured, or in both. Though not a strict requirement, the best limericks are usually those that additionally show some form of internal rhyme, often alliteration, sometimes assonance or another form of rhyme.


Origin of the name

The origin of the actual word limerick is obscure. The first known occurrence is from May 1896; the OED first reports it in 1898. The name is often linked to an earlier form of nonsense verse which was traditionally followed by the refrain that ended "...come all the way up to Limerick?", Limerick being an Irish city. That the older refrain does not match the meter of the limerick has been used to attack this theory. A point in favour, however, is the fact that in other languages, limericks are indeed sung, with wordless (la-la) refrains between them that match a version of this text.

Early examples

Sections in poems following the limerick form can be found throughout known history, from the work of Greek classic poets to the first known English popular song, Sumer is icumen in (c. 1300) and the works of Shakespeare. Othello, King Lear, The Tempest and Hamlet all contain limericks within longer segments. This example is from Othello, Act II Scene III:

IAGO Some wine, ho!


And let me the canakin clink, clink;
And let me the canakin clink
A soldier's a man;
A life's but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.

The first deliberate creation to match limerick form is usually considered Tom o' Bedlam (c. 1600):

From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend thee
And the spirit that stands
by the naked man,
In the book of the moons defend yee.

Edward Lear

Other examples can be discovered from the 19th century. The first book of limericks, though they were not yet named thus, is The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women (1820), followed by the Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen (1822). But the form was popularised by Edward Lear, who has been grandiloquently dubbed "The Poet Laureate of the Limerick", in his A Book of Nonsense (1845) and a later work (1872) on the same theme. In all Lear wrote 212 limericks, mostly aimed towards nonsense. In his time limericks accompanied an illustration on the same subject, and the final line of the limerick was a kind of conclusion, which usually was a variant of the first, ending in the same word. This is different from the punchline or twist of the modern limerick, that usually has a proper rhyme. Since Lear's limericks are the best-known examples of the classical limerick, and since these poems were not yet called "Limericks", some have retroactively named them Learics, as they are not true limericks in the modern sense of the word. An example:

There was a Young Person of Smyrna
Whose grandmother threatened to burn her;
But she seized on the cat, and said, 'Granny, burn that!
You incongruous old woman of Smyrna!'

(Lear's limericks were often typeset in three lines or four lines.)

Well-known authors

Ogden Nash is renowned for humorous short poetry, and often used the limerick form:

There once was a miser named Clarence
Who simonized[1] both of his parents;
"The initial expense,"
he remarked, "is immense,
But it saves on the wearance and tearance."

For reasons of decency, many collections consist entirely of innocent examples. Amongst the exceptions are several collections by the science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who wrote Lecherous Limericks (1975), More Lecherous Limericks (1976) and Still More Lecherous Limericks (1977); he wrote two later volumes in collaboration with poet John Ciardi: Limericks Too Gross (1978) and A Grossery of Limericks (1981).

In 1970, New York's Brandywine Press published The Limerick, a canonical[2] work of bawdy limericks compiled by folklore scholar Gershon Legman, which had previously been printed only in Europe. This was followed by The New Limerick in 1977 (later re-released under the title More Limericks.) The former volume contained more than 1700 verses, the latter about 2700.

Recurring themes

Ribald verses

Definitely a recurring theme is the indecent subjects of many limericks. It is often considered that the less innocent limericks are amongst the best, and the most common:

The 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.
-- Vyvyan Holland

Two volumes of Lecherous Limericks were written by Isaac Asimov, the well known science fiction author.


The mythopoeic "man from Nantucket", typically portrayed as a sexually perverse and hypersexual persona, is also a recurring theme in limericks. For example:

There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

This literary trope can be attributed to the many whalers who once lived on Nantucket and the popularity of the limerick genre in whaling culture. It has also been suggested that the popularity of Nantucket in limericks stems from the possibility to rhyme it with a number of obscenities.

Uttoxeter and Exeter

Similarly Uttoxeter and Exeter have been used as the inspiration for hundreds of limericks:

There was a fair maiden of Exeter,
So pretty that guys craned their necks at her.
One was even so brave
as to take out and wave
The distinguishing mark of his sex at her.


The limerick is often spelled to make the ending match in orthography as well as pronunciation, especially when the spelling of one of the words is bizarre:

There was a young curate of Salisbury
Whose manners were quite Halisbury-Scalisbury
He wandered round Hampshire
Without any pampshire
Till the Vicar compelled him to Warisbury

Note: Salisbury was once known to locals as Sarum, Hampshire as Hants, giving:

There was a young curate of Sarum
Whose manners were quite harem-scarem (Halisbury-Scalisbury)
He wandered round Hants (Hampshire)
Without any pants (pampshire)
Till the Vicar compelled him to Wear'em (Warisbury)

By further contortion, this can even be extended to the beginning:

A bdellium bdiamond of beauty
Was bdisplayed in a shop in Bdjibouti.
I bought it, then came
A bdelicate bdame
I'm her suitor now, and she my suitee.


There is a sub-genre of poems that take the twist of the Limerick and apply it to the Limerick itself. These are sometimes called anti-limericks.


Some lead the listener into expectation of a rhyme, often indecent, which actually is not used.

There was a young lady from Bude
Who went for a swim in the lake
A man in a punt
Stuck an oar in her ear
And said "You can't swim here, it's private."


There once was an athlete of Venice
Who liked to play matches of tennis
When a ball hit him hard
He went to a ward
Where a doctor did cut off his foot.

Another limerick, attributed to composer Arthur Sullivan, replaces the rhyme with association:

There was a young man of St Bees
Who was stung in the arm by a wasp
They asked, "Does it hurt?"
He replied, "No it doesn't"
I'm glad that it wasn't a hornet


Others subvert the structure of the true limerick.

There was a young bard from Japan
Whose limericks never would scan.
When asked why this was,
He said 'It's because
I always try to get as many words into the last line as I possibly can.'


A decrepit old gas man named Peter,
While hunting around for the meter,
Touched a leak with his light.
He arose out of sight,
And, as anyone can see by reading this, he also destroyed the meter.


A limerick fan from Australia
Regarded his work as a failure:
His verses were fine
Until the fourth line.

This is taken a stage further by this pair of verses:

There was a young man of Arnoux
Whose limericks stopped at line two

...and by extension...

There was a young man of Verdun

...which if completed would be a self-contradiction.

The third member of this pair would be the limerick about the young man from Saint Paul, which would be self-contradictory if it were told at all.

Limericks in other languages than English

Although limericks have been written in a great number of different languages, many of these suffer from the fact that the meter of the limerick does not adapt well to such languages as, for example, French or Latin. Good limericks can be written in languages that have a similar natural rhythm to English.

The following example is in Icelandic:

Þegar líkið er glaseygt, svo glampar í,
og í görnum er eitthvað, sem skvampar í,
enda nefbroddur rauður
-- þá er dóninn ei dauður --
heldur drekkur hann of mikið Campari.

A French example, from 1715:

On s'étonne ici que Caliste
Ait pris l'habit de Moliniste
Puisque cette jeune beauté
Ote à chacun sa liberté
N'est-ce pas une Janseniste?

And another French example:

Y avait un jeune homme de Dijon
Qui se foutait de toute religion.
Il a dit, "Quant à moi,
Je déteste les trois:
Le Père, et le Fils, et le Pigeon."

An example in Swedish, attributed to Hans Alfredson:

Det var en ung dam ifrån Gränna
som stjärten så hårt kunde spänna
att hon i detta hål
kunde strypa en ål
och till och med vässa en penna

(There was a young lady from Gränna / who her butt so hard could strain / that she in this hole / could strangle an eel / and even sharpen a pen)

An example in Esperanto from Raymond Schwartz:

Jen estis fraŭlin' en Parizo;
ŝi dormis sen noktoĉemizo,
feliĉe ŝi havis
- Kaj tio min ravis -
piĵamon en mia valizo.

(There was a miss in Paris/she slept without a nightshirt/happily she has/and that delighted me/ pyjamas in my valise)

The dodoitsu is a short sometimes comic Japanese poem known as a Japanese limerick.

John O'Mill wrote several well-known limericks in Dutch, or in an intentional garble of Dutch and English, such as:

A terrible infant called Peter
Sprinkled his bed with a gheter gieter = watering can
His father got woost woest = angry
Took hold of a knoost knoest = tree branch
And gave him a pack on his meter Dutch saying meaning 'to spank'

External links

Limericks Online:

Books available from Gutenberg: