[Ads-l] "come to Limerick" (settle the matter) antedated to 1857

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Wed Oct 5 06:18:56 EDT 2016

I have proposed that the five-line English nonsense verse form got its Irish name, Limerick, in America.

The earliest known attestation of the name appeared in US and Canadian publications in 1880 (with slight variations):

There was a young rustic named Mallory,
who drew but a very small salary.
When he went to the show,
his purse made him go
To a seat in the uppermost gallery.

Tune, Won't you come to Limerick.

When the (Church of England) Bishop of Limerick, a poet, got an honorary degree at Oxford in 1881, some students (spurred by Americans?) sang "won't you come to Limerick," but he and his literary son were puzzled by it. The son, writing in 1918, still did not know its origin, quoting Stevenson that it was "occult from observation."

OED notes the association but does not explain why. Limericks were "said to be from a custom at convivial parties, according to which each member sang an extemporized 'nonsense-verse', which was followed by a chorus containing the words 'Will you come up to Limerick?'"  A well-traveled J. H. Murray--not to be confused with the OED editor J.A.H. Murray--claimed this in 1898. I think it refers to the Irish Civil War Treaty of Limerick.

HDAS has "come to Limerick" as American slang, and indeed, it evidently does not show up in British or Irish slang.  It died out by circa WWI.

Early American uses of "come to Limerick" appear in the US Civil War, and slightly before, but similarly in contexts of pre-War controversy. The following antedates the previously-reported 1859 use.

Kansas Chief, White Cloud KS Thur. Dec. 17, 1857 p. 2 col. 5 "A Wedge in the Camp." This anti-slavery publication reported on controversy with pro-slavery proponents:

He [Capt. Ege] was advertised to speak at Doniphan, on Saturday last, in opposition to the [proposed Lecompton pro-slavery Kansas] Constitution. We understand that he undertook to speak at Troy, a few days before that, when the [pro-slavery] fire-eaters attempted to hiss and hoot him down, and threatened violence. But he drew his revolver, and made them "come to Limerick."

Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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