Monday, 14 November 2011

More on Nursery Rhyme Origins

I no longer use my scanner, not since it started making more noise than the printer. Hence when I do need to scan a document I pop along to the local library, it's free and bookable online several days in advance. I couldn't use my usual library as building work is still going on so I opted for another nearby. Shortly after my arrival I noted a significant number of pre-school children and soon discovered my booking had coincided with Tots Tuesday. Concentration proved difficult for the next 30 minutes as staff and parents tried to entertain said tots with a selection of rhymes - while scanner-man struggled to avoid clicking/scanning/typing to the rhythm of such lyrical masterpieces as "Dingle-Dangle Scarecrow".

I was reminded of my blog some weeks ago, when I looked at the origins of nursery rhymes. Having seen how the most common explanations are even more far-fetched than the rhymes themselves, I expanded my search.

As I Was Going to St Ives - which I had always considered a riddle is apparently also considered a nursery rhyme. The modern form first appeared in 1825, although there is an earlier English version from one hundred years before where the man the narrator met has nine wives (and nine, sacks, cats, kits rather than today's seven of each). Any dispute as to whether this refers to St Ives in Cornwall or that in Cambridgeshire is made pointless by the existence of earlier versions of this problem from a number of cultures, the oldest being the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus where it is designated problem 79. Note this writing has been dated to around 1650 BC, making the problem at least twice as old as any place in the country known as St Ives.

Baa, Baa, Black Sheep dates from 1761, a variation on a French melody. Incidentally the original tune is that now used for Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. The modern controversies suggesting the rhyme has racist elements seem to have come about when the press jumped on the story when looking for column fillers, in turn fuelling reaction, and probably also leading to supposed origins in the slave trade. In truth the origins are unknown but may have connections to the wool tax imposed in 1275 - splitting the three bags three ways is said to represent the king, the church and the local community. Although, yet again, the split does not stand up to examination for although the 6 shillings and 8 pence deducted by the crown does equate to exactly one-third of one pound sterling, it equates to nearer one-twentieth of the actual value.

Bobby Shafto, he of the silver bells on his knee, hailed from Hollybrook, County Wicklow in Ireland and who died in 1737. This ditty would almost certainly have become lost had it not been adopted by the supporters of Robert Shato, MP for County Durahm in the lattre half of the eighteenth century. It is claimed later verses were added when, having been promised to Bridget Belasyse of Brancepeth Castle in County Durham, Shafto went and married Yorkshire lass Anne Duncombe. Bridget is said to have died two weeks after she heard of the wedding.

Bye Baby Bunting was possibly written as a rhyme for infants for in the eighteenth century bunting was used as a term of endearment and meant 'plump'.

Cock a Doodle Doo is certainly old and was already well-known when, in 1606, the first two lines were used in a pamphlet crowing about murder. Perhaps this represents taunting of the chicken (or cockerel in this case) as few fail to find themselves food at one stage.

Diddle Diddle Dumpling My Son John was inspired by the street cry of hot dumpling sellers. The earliest known publication date being 1797.

Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe was first published in the late nineteenth century, however the evidence is strong to suggest this is a centuries old counting song. There is a record of a shepherd's counting song beginning "Ina, mina, tehra, methera", which would be connected to Old English, and a Cornish version of "Eena, mia, mona, mite" which could easily pre-date the Roman occupation of Britain.

Frog Went A-Courting first appeared in print in 1548, which rules out any chance of it being the story of Francois, Duke of Anjou (the frog) wooing Queen Elizabeth I of England (the mouse). As the earliest publication was in Scotland it may refer to Mary Stuart.

Georgie Porgie didn't appear in print until the nineteenth century but is almost certainly much older. Just how old is unknown, meaning it is difficult to tell who this is about - among those most often cited are George Villies, 1st Duke of Buckingham; Charles II; and George I.

Boys and Girls Come Out to Play was first published in the early eighteenth century. Referring to the times when children were expected to work throughout hours of daylight, time for play being in the evening. It is worthwhile noting how the 'Girls and boys of today is as often found as 'Boys and girls' historically.

Goosey Goosey Gander has been said to come from anti-Catholic propaganda which came about through Henry VIII's break from Rome. No evidence has been found to suggest the rhyme existed prior to the eighteenth century and, aside from the mention of prayer, there is little to connect it to any religious theme.

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush has no real meaning, simply a game played by children from the middle of the nineteenth century. There is good reason to believe the original lyric stated a bramble bush for mulberries do not grow on bushes.

Hey Diddle Diddle must have more explanations offered than any other rhyme, although none seem to have any evidence to support a single given origin. There is nothing to suggest it was known to the Ancient Greeks; nor does it seem consistent with worship of the Egyptian deity Hathor; the moon and constellations may fit best with the imagery, if not the narrative; the flight of the Israelites from Egypt seems nonsensical; the bedroom exploits of Lady Katherine Grey seem, at best, far fetched; Catherine, wife of Peter the Great of Russia is equally hard to see; and with so many on offer we should expect to find Catholicism in the mix.

Hickory Dickory Dock is also seen as Hickety Dickety Dock and Dickery Dickery Dock. It is thought to have originally been a counting rhyme, perhaps similar to that employed by Westmorland shepherds in the nineteenth century where a rhyme which began Yan Tan Tethera (one two three) went on to hevera (eight) devera (nine) and dick (ten).

I Had a Little Nut Tree does not appear in print until 1789, although this is no reason to believe it is not much older. Indeed if this is of some age the idea it commemorates the visit of Juana of Castile to England at the court of Henry VII is quite possible.

Jack Sprat, he who ate no fat, has been in use since at least the sixteenth century to describe a man of small stature and probably encouraged children to eat what was on offer.

Ladybird Ladybird would have originated through the long-held belief to kill a ladybird was unlucky. Perhaps chanting this rhyme would encourage them to fly away without resorting to stronger and more permanent action. I refer, of course, to the ladybirds and not those who inflicted the Dingle-Dangle Scarecrow upon me at Tots Tuesday.

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