LIMERICK, a name which has been adopted to distinguish a certain form of verse which began to be cultivated in the middle of the igth century. A limerick is a kind of burlesque epigram, written in five lines. In its earlier form it had two rhymes, the word which closed the first or second line being usually employed at the end of the fifth, but in later varieties different rhyming words are employed. There is much uncertainty as to the meaning of the name, and as to the time when it became attached to a particular species of nonsense verses. According to the New Eng. Diet. " a song has existed in Ireland for a very considerable time, the construction of the verse of which is identical with that of Lear's " (see below), and in which the invitation is repeated, " Will you come up to Limerick ? " Unfortunately, the specimen quoted in the New Eng. Diet, is not only not identical with, but does not resemble Lear's. Whatever be the derivation of the name, however, it is now universally used to describe a set of verses formed on this model, with the variations in rhyme noted above:
" There was an old man who said ' Hush! I perceive a young bird in that bush! ' When they said, 'Is it small? ' He replied, ' Not at all! It is five times the size of the bush.' " The invention, or at least the earliest general use of this form, is attributed to Edward Lear, who, when a tutor in the family of the earl of Derby at Knowsley, composed, about 1834, a large number of nonsense-limericks to amuse the little grandchildren of the house. Many of these he published, with illustrations, in 1846, and they enjoyed and still enjoy an extreme popularity. Lear preferred to give a geographical colour to his absurdities, as in:
" There was an old person of Tartary Who cut through his jugular artery, When up came his wife, And exclaimed, ' O my Life, How your loss will be felt through all Tartary!' " but this is by no means essential. The neatness of the form has led to a very extensive use of the limerick for all sorts of mockserious purposes, political, social and sarcastic, and a good many specimens have achieved a popularity which has been all the wider because they have, perforce, been confined to verbal transmission. In recent years competitions of the " missing word " type have had considerable vogue, the competitor, for instance, having to supply the last line of the limerick.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)