Have you heard the one about the old man with a beard? If you have, then you’re already familiar with the limerick. If not, then read on.
Limericks began hundreds of years ago as parts of nursery rhymes and poems for children. They gained popularity with the 1846 publication of Edward Lear’s The Book of Nonsense.
Children loved Lear’s nonsense verses, and May 12 — Lear’s birthday — is now celebrated as Limerick Day around the world each year.
Limericks are short, five-line poems with a specific rhyming pattern. They tend to be about peculiar people and interesting places. Plus, they’re almost always really funny!
Limericks have an a-a-b-b-a rhyming pattern. This means that the first, second and fifth lines rhyme, while the third and fourth lines also rhyme — but not with the other lines.
Here’s one of Edward Lear’s famous limericks that shows this rhyming pattern:
a: There was an Old Man with a beard, a: Who said, “It is just as I feared!
b: Two Owls and a Hen,
b: Four Larks and a Wren,
a: Have all built their nests in my beard!”
This example also shows another common feature of limericks. Usually, the A lines (first, second and fifth) are longer, while the B lines (third and fourth) are slightly shorter.
If you’re wondering why these short, funny poems are called “limericks,” you’re not alone. Historians and poetry experts have debated the origin of the term for years.
Most people tend to believe the name came from the city of Limerick in Ireland, where people used to play a nonsense verse word game that typically ended with the line, “Won’t you come up to Limerick?”
Although Lear is best known for his limericks, other famous authors have written them from time to time. Shakespeare himself included limericks in longer verses in Othello, King Lear, The Tempest and Hamlet. Other famous authors who have written limericks include Ogden Nash, Isaac Asimov and Mark Twain.
Here are a couple more examples of limericks from Lear:
There was an Old Person whose habits,
Induced him to feed upon rabbits;
When he’d eaten eighteen,
He turned perfectly green,
Upon which he relinquished those habits.
There was a Young Lady whose chin,
Resembled the point of a pin;
So she had it made sharp,
And purchased a harp,
And played several tunes with her chin.