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Limerick – Podictionary Word of the Day

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A good limerick‘s no trouble to fashion:
Avoid lines that are metrically clashin’,
Bring together some rhymes,
Build in humor at times,
And enjoy it. For some, it’s a passion!

That’s by Jesse Frankovich and from a website called The Omnificent English Dictionary In Limerick Form.

Of course the poetry form called limerick takes its name from the Irish city called Limerick. The style of rhyme was around before it was named that though.

Edward Lear who invented such imaginary things as runcible spoons is also credited with popularizing, if not inventing limericks.

That said, Lear was dead before limericks are documented as having been called limericks. He passed away in 1888 and The Oxford English Dictionary traces the first time such poetry being called a limerick to 1896.

The reason limericks began being called limericks was that these often nonsensical poems became a kind of party game. The party goers would take turns—and the dictionaries tell me that each participant not only had to make up a limerick on the spot, but they had to sing it too—following which the chorus ran “Will you come up to Limerick?”Presumably directed at the next person who had to perform.

This makes me think that “coming up to Limerick” sort of parallels “coming up with a limerick” although I’m sure it isn’t quite that literal.

The place Limerick itself is said to have had this or a similar name for more than 1400 years and according to both Patrick Joyce in The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places and Adrian Room in Placenames of the World the meaning of the name is “a bare piece of land.” This could have meant somewhere that wasn’t forested but it could also have meant a place that was hard to defend militarily.

Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    “Limerick” as a poem name is now documented several times earlier than 1898, with examples at American Dialect Society list archive.
    The earliest reported use is in
    St. John Daily News, St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, Nov 30, 1880, Vol. XLII, no. 281, p. 4, col. 5.

    [headline:] Wise and Otherwise
    There was a young rustic named Mallory,
    who drew but a very small salary. When
    he went to show, his purse made him go to
    a seat in the uppermost gallery. Tune,
    wont you come to Limerick.


    In US slang since the American Civil War “come to Limerick” meant, in reference to the earlier Treaty of Limerick, surrender, settle, get to the point, and the like. This American usage apparently influenced the giving of the Irish name to the preexisting English verse form in Limerick-reciting contests.

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