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Limericks: What Are They, And How Do You Write Them?

writing a limerick, cartoon

I remember exchanging limericks with my uncle during the holidays. He wasn’t the richest man, but what he lacked in finances, he made up for in wit. And that’s what limericks are all about.

Consider this article a crash course on how to write a limerick. I’ll cover what a limerick is, the rhyme scheme and syllable rules, and how to create your own from scratch.

Cartoon animals studying limericks

What is a Limerick?

First, let’s define what a limerick is.

Essentially, it’s a five-line poem with a specific rhyme scheme and rhythm. They’re usually funny. The classic example is the Nantucket limerick:

There once was a man from Nantucket,
who kept all his cash in a bucket.
His daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man,
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

Notice that “bouncy”, fun rhythm? That’s the essence of a limerick.

Now, let’s break down the key elements of a limerick.

What is the Rhyme Scheme of a Limerick?

The rhyme scheme of a limerick is known as “AABBA.”

  • Lines 1, 2, and 5 rhyme with each other (the “A” lines)
  • Lines 3 and 4 rhyme with each other (the “B” lines)

In the example above, “Nantucket” and “bucket” are the A rhymes, while “Nan” and “man” are the B rhymes.

Limericks have a distinct bouncy rhythm called anapestic meter.

Each line has a specific number of “beats”:

  • Lines 1, 2, and 5 have three “beats”
  • Lines 3 and 4 have two “beats”

A “beat” is a unit of rhythm consisting of two short syllables followed by one long syllable. It goes like this: da-da-DUM. Here’s how the example limerick’s rhythm goes:

there ONCE was a MAN from NanTUCKet
who KEPT all his CASH in a BUCKet
his DAUGHTer, named NAN,
ran aWAY with a MAN,
and AS for the BUCKet, NanTUCKet

Limericks are usually fun, silly, and sometimes even a bit bawdy. They often involve wordplay, puns, and clever twists. The last line is especially important – that’s where you’ll usually find the punchline or humorous twist.

Dancing cartoon poets

Syllable Rules of Limericks

The syllable count and stress pattern for each line is as follows:

Lines 1, 2, and 5:

  • These lines should have three “feet” of three syllables each, for a total of nine syllables.
  • The rhythm follows an “anapestic” pattern: two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed syllable (da-da-DUM).

Lines 3 and 4:

  • These lines are shorter, with two “feet” of three syllables each, for a total of six syllables.
  • They also follow the anapestic rhythm (da-da-DUM, da-da-DUM).

While the syllable count and stress pattern provide the basic structure, slight variations are acceptable as long as the overall rhythm is maintained. The key is to create a bouncy, sing-song effect to get that classic limerick sound.

Crafting Your Own Limerick

Step 1: Choose a topic or character

Most limericks start with a person or place. It could be a man from Nantucket, a lady from France, or even your Uncle Joe. Pick a name or location that you can rhyme with – this will be the basis for your first line.

Step 2: Brainstorm rhymes

Get out your rhyming dictionary (or use an online one) and start looking for words that rhyme with your topic. For example, if your first line ends with “Joe,” you might find rhymes like “know,” “show,” “go,” “row,” etc. Jot down a list of potential rhymes – you’ll use these to build your limerick.

Step 3: Flesh out your story

Now that you have your character and some rhymes, it’s time to think up a little story or scenario. What funny situation could your character get into? Is there a pun or bit of wordplay you could incorporate? Sketch out a rough idea of what will happen in your limerick.

Step 4: Write lines 1, 2, and 5

Since lines 1, 2, and 5 all rhyme, it often helps to write them first. Start with your person or place in the first line, then build out the scenario using your rhymes. Remember, line 5 is where you’ll usually put your punchline or twist, so work on crafting a funny or surprising ending.

Here’s an example:

There once was a fellow named Joe
Who had a peculiar talent for show
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And juggle three pies in a row!

Step 5: Fill in lines 3 and 4

Now that you have your “A” lines down, fill in the “B” lines that rhyme with each other. These will usually give a bit more detail or advance the story you’re telling.

Putting it all together, here’s our finished “Joe” limerick:

There once was a fellow named Joe
Who had a peculiar talent for show
He’d balance a chair
On his head with flair
And juggle three pies in a row!

Step 6: Revise and polish

Read your limerick out loud to make sure it has the right rhythm and flow. Tinker with the wording as needed – you may find that using a contraction (like “who’d” instead of “who would”) helps with the meter.

Keep playing with it until it rolls off your tongue easily and feels “punchy” enough to get someone to pee a little.

Other Limerick examples:

There once was a cat named
Moe Who loved to put on a show
He’d dance and he’d sing
And do his own thing
While his owners watched from the front row!

A chef from the city of Prague
Had a knack for making a rogue
He’d mix up a stew
With whatever would do
And serve it with vim and with vogue!

In a land far away, lived a knight
Who was known for his chivalrous might
He’d rescue fair maids
And battle on blades
But at home, he’d sleep with a night light!

An artist who lived by the shore
Would paint till his fingers were sore
Landscapes and scenes
In blues, reds and greens
Till he couldn’t paint anymore!

There was an old lady from Leeds
Who had a strange fondness for weeds
She’d plant them with care
In her garden so fair
And ignore all her neighbors’ pleads!

Some final tips and tricks:

  • Embrace the silliness. Limericks are meant to be playful, so don’t take them (or yourself) too seriously.
  • Keep a rhyming dictionary handy. Having a ready source of rhymes will make the process much easier and more fun.
  • Play with homophones. Words that sound the same but have different meanings (like “heir” and “air”) can add a fun twist to your limericks.
  • Practice, practice, practice. The more limericks you write, the easier it will become. You’ll start to develop an ear for the rhythm and a knack for the wordplay.

Common limerick-writing questions:

Q: Is there a character limit to limericks?

While there is no strict character limit for limericks, they are typically short, with around 50-75 characters per line. The focus is more on the syllable count and rhythm than the exact number of characters.

Q: Are limericks a thing in other languages?

Yes, limericks have been adapted into many languages, including French, Spanish, and German. However, due to differences in language structure and syllable stress patterns, the rhythm and rhyme schemes may vary slightly.

Q: Who are some famous limerick writers?

Some of the most famous limerick writers include:

  • Edward Lear, an English poet who popularized the form in the 19th century
  • Ogden Nash, an American poet known for his witty, humorous verses
  • Dixon Lanier Merritt, who wrote the well-known limerick “A Wonder Bird is the Pelican”

Q: What makes a good vs bad limerick?

A good limerick should have:

  • A consistent rhyme scheme (AABBA) and rhythm pattern
  • Clever, humorous wordplay or a witty twist
  • Clean, concise language that flows smoothly

A bad limerick may have:

  • Forced or awkward rhymes
  • Inconsistent meter or rhythm
  • Overly complex language or convoluted storylines
  • Lack of humor or a weak punchline

Q: Where does the word Limerick come from?

The origin of the term “limerick” is uncertain, but it is thought to be related to the Irish city of Limerick. One theory suggests the name comes from the phrase “Will you come up to Limerick?” which was used as a refrain in Irish pub songs and stories that had a similar rhythm and structure to the poetic form we know today.

So there you have it – you’re one step closer to crushing it next National Limerick Day (May 12). Enjoy : )

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