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3. Everything / Languages & Linguistics / Colloquialisms, Slang & Humour
Otherwise known as poetry for the common man, limericks, named after the Irish town of the same name, were first published in 1820 in The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women, Illustrated by As Many Engravings: Exhibiting Their Principal Eccentricities and Amusements1 by James Harris. They were popularised by Edward Lear (1812 - 1888) in his 1846 Book of Nonsense, a two-volume work featuring 73 illustrated limericks. Despite featuring examples of misogyny and racism, these books were intended for children, with mildly nonsensical verses such as these:
There was an old man of Nepal
There was an old man of the coast
Characteristic of Lear's limericks is the identical ending to the first and last lines (example 1) and the use of a place-name at the end of each. Given the intended audience, most of the limericks in his book closely resemble those reproduced above, seldom using a different word for the last line and seldom introducing the humorous twist until the third line.
Lear's book cemented the structure if not the the content of popular limericks. The content-independent school of limerickery holds that any five-line poem with the requisite structure is a limerick, as would be true for a sonnet or villanelle fitting their respective formulae.
Limericks are officially described as a form of 'anapestic trimeter'; the 'anapest' is a 'foot' of poetic verse consisting of three syllables, the third longer (or accentuated to a greater degree) than the first two. Lines one, two and five of a limerick should ideally consist of three anapests each, concluding with an identical or similar phoneme to create the rhyme. Lines three and four are shorter, constructed of two anapests each and again rhyming with each other. Thus, the overall rhyme structure of a, a, b, b, a, with the beat patterna: da-da-daah da-da-daah da-da-daah
b: da-da-daah da-da-daah
Often, lines three and four have an extra syllable at their start. Variations on this theme include the substitution of the final foot of a line to the iamb, a two-syllable foot with the accent on the second. Further substitution in this way can result in the maximum syllable count of
being reduced to a minimum of
As the figures in italics indicate, curtailing the 'active' beats of any line results in a corresponding increase in the number of beats' pause between lines.
It is possible to construct a limerick with unmatching a or b lines; it is essential that the overall beat structure remains and that the flow of words allows the lines to be spoken as if they were identical.
While the appreciation of a finely-structured limerick has a place in today's world, tradition dictates that the comic value of a limerick is greatly enhanced if the content involves that great stalwart of humorous verse - vulgarity. Since Lear's time, the habit of using the same word (usually a place) to end the first and final lines has been supplanted. Limericks today often comprise the following basic formula:
This is quite acceptable, but still slightly dull. The anonymous author of the following limerick succinctly describes the problem of style over content:
The limerick packs laughs anatomical
The writer Don Marquis made a statement in a similar vein, summing up the traditional content of limericks:
There are three kinds of limerick:
Those suitable for recount in the presence of ladies...
A limerick written in jest
In accordance with DNA's dreams
I once met a man from the South
A being whose name was The Lord
...those utterable in the absence of ladies but the presence of clergy...
There once was a girl from Nantucket
A vicar, the Reverend Bowles
A slavering pervert named Benny
'Tis normal for boys adolescent
An elderly priest, Father Vaughan
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Of course, it is possible to be witty and clever without recourse to vulgarity and indecency2. Subtle use of euphemism can make a technically inoffensive limerick greater than one with overt smut...
There was a young plumber called Lee
A gentleman hailing from York
While clever word-play relating to the structure itself can be employed when expletives and a salacious subject must be avoided.
Also, the long-established structure and rhyme pattern of limericks can be turned against them; the reader or listener knows what to expect after the first line, providing, of course, that they've heard a limerick before, and can thus be led to believe that an expletive is imminent. When the expletive or expected word is replaced, the results are often pleasing. The added advantage of printability goes without saying.
The limericks shown on this site
I was feeling quite down on my luck
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