Limericks – How To

W. S. Baring-Gould wrote a learned treatise named “The Lure of the Limerick” which was published in 1968 by Panther books. In it he noted several facts which I must bring to my reader’s (note the position of the apostrephical).

There once was a sculptor named Phidias
Whose manners in art were invidious:
He carved Aphrodite
Without any nightie,
Which startled the ultra-fastidious!

Those ultra-fastidious should refrain from reading any further! They will be not only startled but also disturbed and shocked.


The limerick’s an art form complex
Whose contents run chiefly to sex;
It’s famous for virgins
And masculine urgin’s
And vulgar erotic effects.


Women have the same aversion to limericks as calves do to cookbooks.

And so, just in case I still have a Reader, I shall continue.

We all know a limerick when we see one. It is a simple five lined poem (usually unrepeatable). Oh yes, two of the middle lines are shorter. A real expert may have noticed a rhyming pattern of “a,a,b,b,a”.

The other thing we notice about limericks is that they trip off the tongue.

“Two fries and a hash brown to go, some hotcakes and syrup I’ll stow with three nice big Macs in takeaway sacks. Now how much for this do I owe?

Is that with a coffee today? On a tray or is this takeaway? That’s ten ninety five, take care how you drive, enjoy your meal, have a nice day.”

Both the above sentences are perfect limericks excepting for the layout. That is the secret of the limerick. It uses, not the Iambic rhythms of formal poetry, but the Anapestic rhythms of normal speech.

With that in mind, let’s look at the rhythm closely along with one of my own compositions. I do hope the ultra-fastidious have left by now!

dih-DAH dih-dih-DAH dih-dih-DAH
dih-DAH dih-dih-DAH dih-dih-DAH
dih-DAH dih-dih-DAH
dih-DAH dih-dih-DAH
dih-DAH dih-dih-DAH dih-dih-DAH

That SHIRT looks beCOMing on YOU
BeCOMing inDEED is the VIEW
But, IF, like your VEST
‘Twas I on your CHEST,
I’d CERtainly BE coming TOO!

That is the classic 34 syllable limerick. Of course sometimes it is necessary to add extra syllables especially at the end of a line. If you do, watch the rhymes. The “hanging syllable” should be a “dit” and should fit in with the rhyme scheme. This limerick (39 syllables) has a hanging final syllable on evey line. (The final line DOES scan, but with difficulty in the middle)

A problem the Good Book addRESSes
On workers it tries to impRESS’s
That serving two MASTers
Creates big diSASTers
‘Tis worse then to serve three mistRESS’s

(This was not re a menage d’quatre. They were thoughts about attempting to work on a night of three one act plays with three different directors – all female. All I wanted to do was to play with the lights!)

The same applies at the beginning of lines – sometimes an extra “dit” at the start is necessary. I try to work a “double dit” that can be slurred together.

Of course the main thing about a limerick is that it has a surprise at the end. The old “sting in the tail” which highlights a great short story. Sometimes this sting can be increased with a little creative rhyming. Creating new words just for the rhyme is outlawed by Bylaw 837a. Most limerickers ignore all the bylaws :)

No need to feel bad or have grief
Explaining, I’ll try to be brief
If you’re not put off
The next time we boff
I’d much rather be underneaf!

That is the end of the lesson. All you need now is some inspiration, a few ‘orrible “double ontongs” and a sense of the ludicrous. A dirty mind helps as well.

Good limericks always become anonymous in their oral transmission. Here is my favourite modern limerick. It was written by a very good American limericist. (Technically imperfect as a study of line five reveals)

While playing strip poker with Kate
I found I’d developed a straight
But only to six
And Katie restricts
Her folds to those with an eight!

So I tossed in my hand – - -

Ok, I’m off to try to put Britney into a limerick! In the meantime, the ultra fastidious can come out of hiding again.

10 Responses

  1. there’s also Mr. Malo’s instructional Lawrence Welk limerick:

    An’ a one, an’ a two an’ a three,
    An’ a one, an’ a two an’ a three,
    An’ a one, an’ a two,
    An’ a one, an’ a two,
    An’ a one, an’ a two an’ a three.

    Best one I’ve seen.

  2. I’m fairly sure you’ve mis-remembered that last limerick and falsely accused it of lacking complete perfection.
    As I recall:
    While playing strip poker with Kate
    I noticed I’d gotten a straight
    but just to the six
    and Katie restricts
    her folds to those having an eight.

    (so I had to throw in my hand)

    Cybe -wishes he’s written it

  3. I admit to not having seen the great malo’s effort – that is an excellent example. The only problem with it is that it gives a hanging syllable at the start of each line. Strict anapests do not seem to work as well as an initial “Iamb”.
    The classic “There was an old man from – - – ” is in the iamb/anapest/anapest form.

    I admit to having misremembered – but this is what happens when a limerick moves out of alt.jokes.limericks and moves into the oral tradition. And I am quite sure the bracketed comment was as I remembered. Hugh would not have missed THAT one :) I wish I had written it as well.

  4. Thanks, Nils. There are a few small errors in there (which my conscience pointed out :) )
    As for limericks in other laqnguages, I am a part of a newsgroup in which there are German and Dutch writers who do write limericks, mostly in English but occasionally in their native tongue. I have seen websites with Russian limericks!
    I seem to have an overactive rhyming gene which I suppress in most of my writing. Unfortunately, I cannot control my active alliterative attributes.

  5. What could be better than a night of poker and Norwegian limericks :)

  6. hello

  7. i like it. very mucho!!! gracias senor

  8. My pleasure, Jon

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