Look up the origin of the word limerick and there’s a good chance you’ll be pointed in the direction of the the English poet Edward Lear. Best known for writing The Owl and The Pussycat, in 1846 Lear published an aptly titled Book 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!”
Lear’s book contained more than 100 five-line poems just 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—with their jaunty rhythm and memorable AABBA rhyme scheme—soon became known as “Learic” verses.
Over time the fairly clumsy word Learic drifted ever closer to one of its more easily pronounceable soundalikes—namely Limerick, a city and county in south-western Ireland—and eventually, this was this name that stuck. It’s a neat, if slightly flawed little story. The flaw being that it’s complete rubbish.
For one thing, Lear didn’t invent the AABBA style of verse. That honour goes to the Italian Dominican friar and scholar Thomas Aquinas, who wrote this in the mid-thirteenth century:
Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio
Concupiscentae et libidinis exterminatio,
Caritatis et patientiae,
Humilitatis et obedientiae,
Omniumque virtutum augmentatio.
Regrettably, Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio is not the Latin for “There once was a girl from Nantucket”, as Aquinas’s poem was actually a prayer:
Let it be for the elimination for my sins,
For the expulsion of the desire and lust,
For the increase of charity and patience,
Humility and obedience,
As well as all virtue.
Aquinas didn’t call his poem a limerick of course—but then again, neither did Lear. Another problem with the “Learic” explanation is that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word limerick didn’t appear in print until 1896, eight years after Lear’s death, when 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 reprint here. After all, there might be children reading this. But if you’re in the mood to be scandalized, you can read the original (alongside Beardsley’s accompanying illustration) here. Seriously—you have been warned...
But self-defiling Peruvian saints aside (you really want to know what that limerick says now, don’t you?) Beardsley tellingly used the word limerick in his letter without any accompanying explanation or context, suggesting the word was already well known by the time he came to use it. Could Learic have transformed into limerick in such a short period of time? It’s unlikely.
So where did the name come from? Well, according to Sir James Murray—founding editor of the OED, no less—the word actually derives from an old drinking song, once popular among troops in the British army, that apparently required all those taking part to make up their own verse, one person after another. Each verse was an improvised five-line poem, following an AABBA rhyme scheme, and was typically witty, nonsensical, satirical, or indecent in nature. And in between all of these spur-of-the-moment verses, the entire group would join together for the chorus, “Will you come up to Limerick?”.
The game was probably based on an even earlier Irish jig called Will You Come Down To Limerick?, or Kitty Come Down To Limerick, which is still performed—albeit without the indecent lyrics—today.