Friday Funny- Nursery Rhymes and Language

I read a neat little post by about the origins of some of our current ‘innocent’ words and thought it would be fun to put together a different list here. For the original article, click here, and learn where words like “Tip,” “Punk,” and “Flaky” came from.

The ones I have always thought were fun were nursery rhymes since it seems like half of what they say are gibberish, in part it’s mostly the Brit’s fault, which is coo’ makes sense. ūüôā

I think by now we’ve all heard that “Ring around the Rosie” was actually a chant sung regarding the Black Death, if you don’t know the break down you can go read the full article post that I found, but here below are the highlights and history to some of our favorite Nursery Rhymes:

Baa Baa Black Sheep:

Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!
One for the master, one for the dame,
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.

Why you want me nekked?

The reason to the words and history to this song were to associate wool and wool products with the animal that produces it, not to mention the sound that a sheep would make! The first grasp of language for a child or baby is to imitate the sounds or noises that animals make –¬† onomatopoeia (words sound like their meaning e.g. baa baa in “Baa, baa black sheep”). In some of the earlier versions of “Baa, baa black sheep” the title is actually given as “Ba, ba black sheep” – it is difficult to spell sounds!

The wool industry was critical to the country’s economy from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century so it is therefore not¬†surprising that it is celebrated in the Baa Baa¬†Black Sheep Nursery Rhyme. A historical¬†connection for this rhyme has been suggested – a political satire said to refer to the Plantagenet King Edward I (the Master) and the export tax imposed in Britain in 1275 in which the English Customs Statute authorised the king to collect a tax on all exports of wool in every port in the country.

Our further research indicates another possible connection of this Nursery rhyme to English history relating to King Edward II (1307-1327). The best wool in Europe was produced in England, but the cloth workers from Flanders, Bruges and Lille were better skilled in the complex finishing trades such as dying and fulling (cleansing, shrinking, and thickening the cloth). King Edward II encouraged Flemmish weavers and cloth dyers to improve the quality of the final English products.

Hickory Dickory Dock:

Hickory dickory dock
The mouse ran up the clock
The clock struck one
The mouse ran down
Hickory dickory dock

A nonsense poem which uses alliteration where children mimic the sound of a clock chiming at the relevant point in the song. Hickory, dickory¬†dock is intended to introduce children to the fundamentals of telling the time. Hickory, dickory¬†dock is also known by another title “Hickory, dickory¬†doc” inevitable perhaps due to the nonsensical nature of the words of Hickory, dickory¬†dock! The¬†first publication date for the “Hickory, dickory dock” rhyme is 1744. Investigation into the meanings of the words used in the rhyme lead us to believe that it has its origins in America.

Hickory is a derived from the North American Indian word ‘pawcohiccora’ which is an oily milk-like liquor that is pressed from pounded hickory nuts. The word ‘Pohickory’ was contained in a list of Virginia trees published in 1653. The word ‘Pohickory’ was subsequently shortened to ‘hickory.’

Dock is a species of plant which has the Latin name of Rumex crispus. A well-known weed which has a long taproot making it difficult to exterminate. The Dock plant can be used as an astringent or tonic and many of us would have experienced the healing properties of the Dock leaf after being stung by a stinging nettle!

Note from FF-LOL author: Stinging Nettles are edible, you just need to crush the leaf by crumpling it to break the nettles.¬† They taste like raw peas to me. ūüôā

Humpty Dumpty:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses, And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

Kind of creepy.

Humpty¬†Dumpty¬†was a colloquial term used in fifteenth century England describing someone who was obese. This has given rise to various, but inaccurate, theories surrounding the identity of Humpty¬†Dumpty. The image of Humpty¬†Dumpty¬†was made famous by the illustrations included in the ‘Alice through the looking glass’ novel by Lewis Carroll (pictured). However, Humpty¬†Dumpty was not a person pilloried in the famous rhyme!

Humpty¬†Dumpty¬†was in fact believed to be a large cannon!¬† It was used during the English Civil War (1642 – 1649) in the Siege of Colchester (13 Jun 1648 – 27 Aug 1648). Colchester was strongly fortified by the Royalists and was laid to siege by the parliamentarians (Roundheads). In 1648 the town of Colchester¬† was a walled town with a castle and several churches and was protected by the city wall. Standing immediately adjacent the city wall, was St Mary’s Church. A huge cannon, colloquially called Humpty¬†Dumpty, was strategically placed on the wall next to St Mary’s Church. The historical events detailing the siege of Colchester are well documented – references to the cannon (Humpty¬†Dumpty) are as follows:

June 15th 1648 – St Mary’s Church is fortified and a large cannon is placed on the roof which was fired by ‚ÄėOne-Eyed Jack Thompson’

July 14th / July 15th 1648 – The Royalist fort within the walls at St Mary’s church is blown to pieces and their main cannon battery¬† (Humpty¬†Dumpty) is destroyed.

August 28th 1648 – The Royalists lay down their arms, open the gates of Colchester and surrender to the Parliamentarians.

A shot from a Parliamentary cannon succeeded in damaging the wall beneath Humpty¬†Dumpty¬†which caused the cannon to tumble to the ground. The Royalists, or Cavaliers, ‘all the King’s men’ attempted to raise Humpty¬†Dumpty¬†on to another part of the wall. However, because the cannon , or Humpty¬†Dumpty, was so heavy “All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again!” This had a drastic consequence for the Royalists as the strategically important town of Colchester fell to the Parliamentarians after a siege lasting eleven weeks. Earliest traceable publication 1810.

A Roundhead (Parliamentarian) was so-called from the close-cropped hair of the Puritans.

Arf! Arf! I want a divorce!

The word Cavalier is derived from the French word Chevalier meaning a military man serving on horseback – a knight.

Old Mother Hubbard:

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor doggie a bone,
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
So the poor little doggie had none.

The Old Mother Hubbard referred to in this rhyme’s words allude to the famous Cardinal Wolsey. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was the most important statesman and churchman of the Tudor history period in 16th century England. Cardinal Wolsey¬†proved to be a faithful servant but displeased the King, Henry VIII, by failing to facilitate the King’s divorce from Queen Katherine of Aragon who had been his queen of many years. The reason for seeking the divorce and hence the creation of the Old Mother Hubbard poem was to¬† enable him to marry Anne Boleyn with whom he was passionately in love. In the Old Mother Hubbard song King Henry was the¬†“doggie” and the “bone” refers to the divorce (and not money as many believe) The cupboard relates to the Catholic Church although the subsequent divorce arranged by Thomas Cramner resulted in the break with Rome and the formation of the English Protestant church and the demise of Old Mother Hubbard – Cardinal Wolsey.

Pop! Goes the Weasel:

Pop goes the Weasel, Half a pound of tuppenny rice, Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
Up and down the City road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

Alternate Lyrics, the one I’m most familiar with:

Round and round the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey stopped to pull up his socks
And Pop goes the weasel.

Now I know the Weasel doesn't actually explode.

The Nursery Rhyme, ‘Pop goes the weasel’ sounds quite incomprehensible in this day an age! The origins of the rhyme are believed to date back to the 1700’s. We have listed two versions of the rhyme on this page. The first rhyme is the better known version – some translation is in order!

These words are derived from Cockney Rhyming slang which originated in London. Cockneys were a close community and had a suspicion of strangers and a dislike of the Police (they still do!) Cockneys developed a language of their own based roughly on a rhyming slang – it was difficult for strangers to understand as invariably the second noun would always be dropped. Apples and Pears (meaning stairs) would be abbreviated to just ‘apples’, for instance, “watch your step on the apples”. To “Pop” is the slang word for “Pawn”. Weasel is derived from “weasel and stoat” meaning coat. It was traditional for even poor people to own a suit, which they wore as their ‘Sunday Best’. When times were hard they would pawn their suit, or coat, on a Monday and claim it back before Sunday. Hence the term ” Pop goes the Weasel”

The words to the Rhyme are “Up and down the City road, in and out the Eagle -That‚Äôs the way the money goes – Pop! goes the weasel”. The Eagle refers to ‘The Eagle Tavern’ a pub which is located on the corner of City Road and Shepherdess Walk in Hackney, North London. The Eagle was an old pub which was re-built as a music hall in 1825. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was known to frequent the Music Hall. It was purchased by¬† the Salvation Army in 1883 (they were totally opposed to drinking and Music Halls). The hall was later demolished and was rebuilt as a public house in 1901.

Regarding alternate lyrics; Our thanks go to Jesse from Perth, Western Australia for these lyrics, which seem to be in combination with another children’s song ‘Here we go round the mulberry bush’. Lee speculates that if a monkey is ¬£500, then perhaps the coat and money are being exchanged back and forth until something else comes up.

Three Blind Mice: 

Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer’s wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?

The origin of the words to the Three blind mice rhyme are based in English history. The ‘farmer’s wife’ refers to the daughter of King Henry VIII, Queen Mary I. Mary was a staunch Catholic and her violent persecution of Protestants led to the nickname of ‘Bloody Mary’. The reference to ‘farmer’s wife’ in Three blind mice refers to the massive estates which she, and her husband King Philip of Spain, possessed.

The ‘three blind mice’ were three noblemen who adhered to the Protestant faith who were convicted of plotting against the Queen.¬† She did not have them dismembered and blinded as inferred in Three blind mice, but she did have them burnt at the stake!


Fun times that was!¬†Let me know if there is anything you want me to research for future Friday Funnies and I’ll work it into the presentation. ūüôā


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