What's in a Word? Limerick

by John Bemelmans Marciano

Photo: State Library and Archives of Florida / Flickr

lim•er•ick n. A kind of poem, never serious, usu. obscene.

If toponymity has a favored style of poetry, it is not the lyric but the limerick, which, beyond being named for a county in Ireland, usually has a toponym at the end of the first line to be rhymingly riffed off of. The master of the limerick form was Edward Lear, a superb zoological draftsman and ethereal painter of Eastern landscapes who is, ironically, best remembered for his verse and comic line drawings. First published in 1846, Lear's Book of Nonsense contains such gems as:

There was an Old Person of Rhodes,
Who strongly objected to toads;
He paid several cousins to catch them by dozens,
That futile Old Person of Rhodes.

Lear's poems are called limericks only retroactively, as the word doesn't show up in the language until 1896. (The name may have come from a poetry-reciting game in which every player had to end their poem with "Will you come up to Limerick?")

The most famous limerick, of course, is the one that begins, "There once was a man from Nantucket," which has become a punch line in and of itself, as the verse that follows is so outrageously vulgar. The original man-from-Nantucket limerick, however, was utterly clean. First published in the Princeton Tiger in 1902, it continued:

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

Nan took it. Get it?

This entry is excerpted from Toponymity: An Atlas of Words, by John Bemelmans Marciano, and is reprinted here with permission.