"Limerick" and The Granta (1897)

Bapopik at AOL.COM Bapopik at AOL.COM
Sun Jun 27 10:25:57 UTC 2004

   OED has "limerick" from only 1896.  Could it have started in the Cambridge
University publication, THE GRANTA?  Unfortunately, the NYPL does not have
these early years of it.

  Bristol Times And Mirror  Tuesday, November 09, 1897 Bristol,
...47 votes Cambridge has a weakness for LIMERICKS. Tlie blowing, emanating
Pg. 7, col. 8:
   Cambridge has a weakness for Limericks.  The following, emanating from
"The Granta," is going the round of the College rooms with attendant applause:--
      There once was a Marquis of Magdalene,
      Who was known as the idle young dagdelene.
         When he got up to dress
         It was never much less
      Than two hours that he wasted in dagdelene.
The point of the joke of course hangs on the fact that "Magdalene" is
pronounced "Maudlin" when the college is referred to.

It is accepted today by virtually all limerick scholars that, short of a
spectacular revelation, we will never know the origins of the use of the word
Limerick to describe the five line verse. For a century, limerick enthusiasts have
groped and conjectured without any real success. The verses were known as
nonsense verses one day -- and the next, as limericks. It was as simple as that.

Bill Backe-Hansen, in a marvelous article ("The Origin of the Limerick as we
Know it,'' The Pentatette, September 1987) traces the serious and sometimes
outlandish theories.

I will attempt to flesh out that transition from nonsense verse to limerick
as best I can, not unlike the sculptor turned anthropologist who daubs clay on
some prehistoric fossilized skull to give us a glimpse at our hominid

The clues are few and far between:

An exchange of letters between Ambrose Beardsley and Leonard Smithers in 1896
and 1897 shows their familiarity with the word limerick. Beardsley's 1896
bawdy limerick (Ecstasy of St. Rose of Lima), although not identified as a
limerick, is the first complete limerick by a person who knew and used the term.

In October 1898 Cambridge University students knew the word and used it to
refer to two verses in The Cantab.

An exchange of comments appeared in Notes and Queries in November and
December 1898 with respect to the connection between the word and the verse. James A.
H. Murray, founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, associated the
word limerick strictly with ``indecent nonsense verse.'' He went on to speak of
Ireland and the long-standing custom there of drinking and reciting.

Theories of French songs and the Limerick Brigade notwithstanding, my theory
goes something like this:

Lear's books of nonsense verse were known to everyone in the English speaking
world by the end of the nineteenth century. A number of wags had already
begun turning out bawdy verses (some based on Lear's verses) that we would
recognize today as limericks and probably do. Following Lear's example, the bawdy
verses were geographically oriented: The old man from _____; The lady from

Pub habituals incorporated these bawdy nonsense verses into their Saturday
night ritual. A participant would sing a verse associated with a specific town,
probably working down the coast or working through the alphabet. If you failed
to meet your associates expectations it was chug-a-lug. Unrhymable Limerick
could always be counted on for a spectacular failure -- only salvageable by a
really gross verse. And so the bawdy nonsense verses came to be called

No other town or city was as troublesome as Limerick, not Aberystwth, not
East Wubley, not Shrovetide, not Greenwich.

Well into this century, the name was always capitalized. It is still spoken
with reverence at many gatherings, especially where strange colored liquid is
consumed. Oddly enough, university students are still singing limericks and
still chug-a-lugging.

Can any of this be proved? Unfortunately, no. Is it plausible? Definitely.
Will this theory survive? Until a better one comes along.

Ockam's razor tells us that the simplest of competing theories is preferable
and that an explanation should first be attempted in terms of what is already

This theory explains why the Limerick/verse association was so slow to appear
in Victorian print (and then without an appreciation for its meaning or
usage), how it spread so quickly before it surfaced, and why it came to be
mistakenly connected with Irish origins.

(From The Pentatette, the Newsletter of the Limerick Special Interest Group,
XIII.1, October 1993.)

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