National Limerick Day, held every year on May 12, pays homage to the man who made the short poems widespread — Edward Lear. Lear was an English poet who is known for his nonsense-style, often writing with made-up words, telling tales of “Quangle-Wangles,” and “runcible spoons.” He wrote 212 limericks, most of which didn’t follow the specific rhyming rules of the style. Although the by definition limericks have five lines, Lear’s were often shown in three or four, to give space to his accompanying illustrations and drawings. (A favorite of his: “There was an Old Man of Peru, who watched his wife making a stew; But once by mistake, In a stove she did bake, That unfortunate Man of Peru.”)
The origin of the poem’s name is a bit disputed, but most people believe it comes from the Irish city of Limerick. With just fine lines, the first two rhyming with the fifth line, and third and fourth lines rhyming together, limericks are quick, funny poems. Although popularized by Lear, limericks first started to emerge in England in the 18th century. Most limericks begin by describing a person and place, and then the rest of the lines describe that person’s actions. Limericks can be vulgar or crude, and are often inappropriate. Lear liked it that way—he considered “clean” limericks to be average at best. More recent limericks have turned toward current events and social issues.