Ety. of "limerick": new/old wrinkles

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Mon Dec 6 04:21:17 UTC 2004

According to "The Smithsonian" for Sept., 2002:

"The five-line verse probably originated from the limerick-makers of Croom, known as the Maigue poets, who flourished in the 18th century. They were schoolteachers, priests and self-styled persons of letters, living within 20 miles of this southwestern Irish village. Their gatherings at inns and taverns were called poets courts, to which new members were invited by "warrants" to drink, recite, and often sing, their verses."

Through the miracle of the Net, this assertion (note the erroneous "probably," which in such cases is understood as "unquestionably" - but Barry knows all about this phenomenon) has been repeated and repeated.

The perfect limerick form, if not the usual subject matter, has been identified in the works of Herrick and others from the early 17th century, with imperfect exx. going back much further. So the Maigue poets, lobby as they may, cannot claim they invented the limerick form.
Their "limericks," moreover, were so far as I can tell in Irish and not English. The unlikely claim is made, however, that their activity in the County Limerick suggested the name of the form, which OED has been unable to date earlier than 1896, with a sudden, dramatic cluster of cites through 1899. By that time, no one seemed able to explain persuasively the reason behind the name. The etymology of "limerick" is still unknown.

Predictably, several Irish tourist sites have fostered the claim that "limerick" is from Croom, just as some Emerald Isle publicists have fostered the equally fun-to-believe claim that "Molly Malone" is an ancient folk song about an actual sixteenth or seventeenth century streetwalker.  (The song was written in 1884, apparently about a generic fishmonger: sources too numerous to mention here.)

There appears to be not the slightest evidence that the Maigue poets were connected, directly or otherwise, with the naming of the limerick 150 years before the word evidently came into fashion.

Often cited, meanwhile, is OED's interesting report, unattributed and unsourced, that the name perhaps came from a now-lost chorus, sung between limericks, that included the line, "Will you come up to Limerick?"

Can anyone adduce either the source of the OED's suggestion, or, better, the complete putative chorus referred to, or, ideally, a jolly description of undergraduates, tavern-goers, rugby players, or anybody else at any time singing this chorus between limericks?

(The OED definition of "limerick," BTW, is woefully inadequate.)

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