There was an old dictionary buff
Whose dog snorted mountains of snuff.
Himself, so we hear,
Preferred to quaff beer,
A brew it found frightfully duff.
Ah, limericks! The verse form that trips off the tongue like no other. Once particularly popular with rugby teams and the forces, they are the one kind of poem we can all succeed in creating if only we just put our mind to it.
But what exactly counts as a limerick? There are ground rules. Limericks must consist of five lines and their rhymes must follow the pattern AABBA as in the one above (buff, snuff, hear, beer, duff). What makes them so tongue-trippy is their scampering metre, that is, the pattern formed by the alternation of long and short or stressed and unstressed syllables in each line. In limericks that pattern is based on the beat da da DUM | da da DUM | etc. Each of those da da DUM units is technically known as a foot, and that specific da da DUM pattern is, technically speaking, an anapaest. (In the first line of the limerick above, ‘dictionary’ must have three syllables not four to obey the metre.) In the limerick further down, the stressed syllables are in capitals to highlight the rhythm and illustrate the pattern.
But why ‘limerick’, which is an Irish place name? If you’re guessing it’s because someone in that Shannonside city invented the form, you’d be mistaken. Though nobody can be certain, the most plausible explanation is that it arose from a custom at parties of each guest singing an improvised nonsense verse, after which the assembled company chorused ‘Will (or won’t) you come up to Limerick?’. Calling this verse form limerick goes back only to the close of the nineteenth century, but in mid-century Edward Lear (1812–1888) had already published A Book of Nonsense, which contained dozens of limericks avant la lettre such as:
There WAS an Old MAN with a BEARD,
Who SAID, “It is JUST as I FEARED! –
Two OWLS and a HEN,
Four LARKS and a WREN,
Have ALL built their NESTS in my BEARD!”
While the metre of limericks is dancey, it isn’t typical of classic poetry in English, which often has five ‘feet’ in a da DUM rhythm, in lines known as iambic pentameters, pentameter referring to the Greek for ‘five’. Gray’s famous Elegy is in iambic pentameters:
The cur|few tolls | the knell |of par|ting day
da DUM | da DUM |da DUM | da DUM | da DUM
Though no other verse form I know of references place names, there is a light-hearted form named after a person, and that is a clerihew: four lines rhyming AABB and containing the name of a person, usually a famous one. Here’s one by the inventor himself, Edmund Clerihew Bentley:
Edgar Allen Poe
Was passionately fond of roe.
He always liked to chew some,
When writing something gruesome.
Possibly the shortest clerihew ever is by W.H. Auden, addressed to the poetry editor of the New Yorker, Howard Moss, and mentioning the American poet Robert Lowell:
Is Robert Lowell
Better than Noel
Apart from lending its name to a poetic form, Limerick has also loaned its moniker to fine leather gloves, a special type of fishhook, and exquisite lace. (Not to mention being the birthplace of the band The Cranberries. But I digress.) Nouns named after places are known as toponyms and a few of Irish origin have enriched English.
The most famous, of course, is blarney, or gift of the gab, named after the Blarney stone in, erm, well, the town of Blarney. I have kissed it (pre-COVID days, obvs), but it clearly hasn’t worked. When I was growing up in antediluvian times, scampi was often known as Dublin Bay prawns. Back then they were a novelty to me and to my parents who, being a harmonious couple, would never fight like the proverbial Kilkenny cats, who scrapped so ferociously that nothing remained of them in the end but their tails. Another violent toponym is Donnybrook – perhaps better known in other Englishes than British English – for a free-for-all brawl or a particularly heated argument. It comes from the name of the Dublin suburb where the annual Donnybrook Fair, held until 1855, became synonymous with rowdiness.
I’ll leave things there with this immortal limerick for your delectation. Now the rules have been explained, perhaps you’d like to try writing your own limerick.
Today is the glorious twelfth of May,
Be careful about what you say.
If you blurt out a lim’rick
Throw the dog a big stick
Then go merrily whistling your way.
By Jeremy Butterfield
Jeremy Butterfield is the former Editor-in-Chief of Collins Dictionaries, and editor of the fourth, revised edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
All opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual writers, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of Collins, or its parent company, HarperCollins.