Sunday 30 December 2012

The Last Word on Nursery Rhyme Origins

In past months I discussed the origins of those irritating little ditties with which we attempt to amuse our children. The idea came to me when I inadvertently turned up at a local library on Tuesday morning, which just happened to be Tots Tuesday. The tots, who were mostly struck dumb, were subjected to a number of disagreeably jolly rhymes while being encouraged to wave and shake various parts of their anatomy. Many of these songs I’d never heard before, including the one which did more than any other to suggest this blog topic – where children were seemingly encouraged to follow a certain career when they grow up and be a pirate on the sea and have “lots of rummy in my tummy”.

Hopefully the following selection will enable parents to encourage their offspring to aspire to goals away from criminal activities and not fuelled by excessive amounts of alcohol.

Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross – a difficult rhyme to understand, principally because it suddenly bursts into print around the end of the eighteenth century but with seemingly different versions each time. This does suggest it is a traditional rhyme but one where the original meaning is long lost.

Rock a Bye Baby – another mystery, although two of the less dubious explanations are worthy of mention. That it was the first rhyme ever written on American soil and a reference to the Native American method of letting their children sleep in a cradle suspended from a branch is really interesting, until we remember the rhyme pre-dates the settling of the Americas by quite a time. We also find the cradle representative of the House of Stuart and the wind the Protestant wind of change in the shape of William of Orange.

Rub-a-Dub-Dub – first appears in the eighteenth century, when early versions differed. The problem of origin, and therefore meaning, is knowing which version is the original. One theory is this describes three respected and vital tradesmen – butcher, baker, candlestick-maker – who are said to be watching the events unfold at the local fair.

See-Saw Margery Daw – is another rhyme appearing in writing for the first time in the eighteenth century. Again the question as to origin depends upon the age. Some sources maintain it is one of the oldest and simplest games played by children and a song made up to ‘see-saw’ to. Alternatively this was created to keep time for those sawing logs. Either way there is no clue as to the identity of Margery Daw and seems to have been made up to fit the rhyme.

Simple Simon – has been seen in its present form for almost three hundred years. Yet that is taken from the initial verses of a much longer narrative, telling the tale of Simon as an adult as well as a boy.

Sing a Song of Sixpence – has many more suggestions as to the origins as there are lines. Indeed, the meaning depends on which part of the rhyme we examine. For example the title could be considered a line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night when Sir Toby Belch requests “Here’s sixpence, sing us a song”. The mention of birds in a pie, clearly still alive, is true for it was once considered entertainment to cut open a pie and release birds at a feast. The cookbook telling how to achieve this culinary delight also offers a recipe for dessert, consisting of milk and honey.

Solomon Grundy – has not changed one iota since it appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century. Likely there was no Solomon Grundy, simply his name fit nicely with the second line and the metre.

The Lion and the Unicorn – at last one which is understood clearly. The lion of England and the unicorn of Scotland are the two figures in the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne as James I.

There Was an Old Woman – is clearly about someone who has a lot of children. Unfortunately this applies to many over the centuries. The favourite is Queen Caroline, consort of George II who did have eight children and the dates fit well. However her husband, George II, was sometimes referred to as ‘the old woman’ as it was suspected he was quite hen-pecked and the queen was the real power.

This is the House that Jack Built – features such a simple premise it is possible to link it to many events and individuals, including (of all things) an Aramaic hymn. Cherrington Manor in Shropshire is said to be the actual house built by Jack, although while some of the ‘facts’ fit the property there is no reason to believe this any more than any other suggestion.

This Little Piggy – while the ‘pigs’ or toes are never numbered it seems impossible this did not begin as a counting rhyme.

This Old Man – is certainly a counting rhyme with beginnings way back in time and is probably at least as old as the English language.

Three Blind Mice – it is often said that the ‘blindness’ was the Protestant faith of three bishops burned at the stake during the reign of Bloody Mary. If this is so then the ‘mice’ are the Oxford martyrs of Ridley, Cranmer and Latimer. Nice story but one which is not supported by contemporary writings.

To Market, To Market – simply records the many times during a year when country folk would head to the market to buy and sell their wares.

Tom Tom the Piper’s Son – is generally held to be based on an earlier rhyme dealing with recruitment. Once soldiers were signed up for military service at inns and hostelries, easier to convince a man it’s a good idea when he’s had a few. In return he would be given the king’s shilling (payment) and to break such would be seen as an insult to the monarch. Many tricks are said to have been used to get men to take the shilling, including tossing it into his ale at a suitable moment. It was widely believed that as he quaffed his ale the shilling would be spotted and removed (or worse ended up in the mouth) and considered to be an agreement.

Two Little Dickie Birds – is still used to test a child’s observational skills. If you don’t know the test and are still confounded by it, then I’m guessing you’re even older than I was when I realized what Pater was doing!

Wee Willie Winkie – was penned by William Miller and published for the first time in 1841. While many have tried to associate it with most political and religious clashes of the day, in truth it is nothing more than a bedtime story.

What are Little Boys Made of – is part of a larger work where the origins of not only boys and girls are examined, but also young and old men and women, soldiers and sailors, nurses, fathers and mothers and all manner of people are examined. While never proven conclusively it seems this was penned by poet Robert Southey.

Wind the Bobbin Up – At the beginning of this and other looks at the origins of nursery rhymes, I stated the idea came to mind having inadvertently arrived at the library on the dreadful Tots Tuesday. Several of these ‘traditional’ rhymes I heard here for the first time including this little ditty which I had to Google as I misheard it as “Wind your Barbie up” and suspected to be a daughter’s first lesson on how to be bitchy. It is actually a coordination exercise, the movements being far more important than the words – which must be a great relief for Crystal Ken.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Buckinghamshire Place Names

Recently published by Fineleaf , both as a paperback and now as an ebook, my look at the place names of Buckinghamshire includes the town of Beaconsfield. As a taster here is something from this new book.


An Old English place name from beacen feld which describes 'the open land by the beacon or signal fire'. The name appears in a document of 1184 as Bekenesfelds. Incidentally none of the early forms explain why the place name is pronounced 'beckon-' rather than the 'beacon-'.

Copshrews Court is a rather corrupted version of a name describing 'the coppice row of trees'; Hall Barn began life as 'Healla's mor or mashland'; from the thirteenth century the Gregory family were at Gregory's Farm; Hyde Farm, a reminder of the manor called Hide seen since the fourteenth century as a area usually described as equal to 120 acres but this depends largely on the quality of the soil; Butler's Court was home to John Botiler in 1443; Wilton Park was the manor of Thomas de Whelton by 1344; and Holloway's Farm was home to the family of Henry Holweye in 1370.

The most common pub name in the country is the Red Lion. As with the vast majority of 'coloured animal' names this is heraldic. Most Red Lions represent Scotland and date from the accession of James VI of Scotland as James I of England. Earlier examples point to John of Gaunt, the most powerful man in England during the fourteenth century. Such is the popularity of the name that many of the more recent names must be considered to have been chosen simply because the name of the Red Lion is synonymous with the public house.

Along similar lines is the Royal Standard of England, a name dating from the seventeenth century when Charles II visited the premises. Named after one of the most successful of British writers is the Charles Dickens. The Prince of Wales is a common name, most refer to the man who went on to become Edward VII who, until recently, had held the title for longer than anyone.

The Greyhound depicts the famous mail coach which ran between London and Birmingham. The addition of 'jolly' to a name is an early trick used by inn-keepers to suggest a good time was to be had within. In the case of the Jolly Cricketers the addition was to an existing name, one taken from it being the base for the local cricket team.

Former prime minister Benjamin Disraeli was member of parliament for Beaconsfield. As a favourite of Queen Victoria he was made Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, when towns and cities across the land saw an explosion in residential development, Beaconsfield had been so much in the public eye it was an obvious choice for street names everywhere. Names which are still seen today.

Bekonscot is a created name, a phonetic spelling of the pronunciation of Beacon- and substituting -cot for -field as the originator came from Ascot, while also suggesting this place is smaller. For this is indeed smaller, a model village created from the 1920s by accountant Roland Callingham (1881-1961) in his large back garden. With the assistance of his gardener, cook, maid and chauffeur they designed the layout which is a virtual snapshot of English rural life in the decade leading up to the Second World War.

Together they adapted existing features to the landscape. The former swimming pool became a sea, a rockery readily took on the appearance of rolling hills, and the leading model railway designers Bassett-Lowke were called in for the railway. The latter is worthy of special mention as this gauge 1 layout would scale up to ten miles, and still features trains which have been running for some 50 years, each of the ten locomotives covering an average of 2,000 miles every year. Since 1978 the model has been owned by the Church Army, who have welcomed fifteen million visitors enabling them to donate around five million pounds to charity.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Cheshire Place Names

Recently published by Fineleaf , both as a paperback and now as an ebook, my look at the place names of Cheshire includes the town of Nantwich. As a taster here is something from this new book.


Recorded as Wich in 1086 and as Nametwihc in 1194, this name unites Old English wic and Middle English named and tells of 'the famed or renowned salt works'.

Barker Street is an earlier name than one which could refer to a barker or market trader, this comes from barkere straet and describes 'the lane of the tanners'. Cart Lake is from kartr laec 'the bog or stream where carts are seen', the same watercourse crossed by Beam Street as it becomes Beam Bridge and tells us it was constructed from 'wooden beams'.

Castle Street was named after an old castle, not a trace of which remains, earlier it was known as Pudding Lane which tells us it was known for its 'entrails, offal' which littered the street. Hospital Street was the site of the Hospital of St Nicholas, founded in the 11th century. First Wood Street and Second Wood Street were both where supplies of cut wood were stored; Barony Road is the last surviving clue to the once extensive holdings of the Malbano family; and in 1621 Sir Roger Wilbraham founded the Wilbrahams Almshouses for six poor men of the town.

Public houses of Nantwich include the Boot & Shoe, a welcome to leather workers producing footwear in the area. The Swan With Two Necks makes a nice image, hence why it was used by the Worshipful Company of Vintners and the Dyers' Company, and several others. Similarly the Leopard is an heraldic symbol representing the Weavers Company. The Frog and Ferret has no true etymology, it is a name which is quite suited for a pub name for it represents aliteration and two items which are otherwise unrelated.

The Wilbraham Arms features a family which have been associated with the place since Richard de Wilbraham was Sheriff of Cheshire by 1269. The Wickstead Arms remembers the family who came to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. The Cotton Arms is named after the family who were resident at Combermere Abbey, the inn dates back to the sixteenth century and was built in part using ships timbers.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Slang Terms for Body Parts

Recently author Jim Murdoch suggested it might be interesting to look at slang terms for body parts. Thanks for the suggestion, Jim. It has resulted in the following.

Initially I intended to provide an alphabetical list but soon discovered there are many more terms than I ever thought possible. Hence I opted for taking each body part and looking at the slang terms for each. It also seems logical to start with the top and work down and thus let’s start with the head.

Head has several slang terms used in English, some will be not only known and used. Noggin first came into common use around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Origins are disputed, some maintaining it is perfectly acceptable, if little used, English word. If this is so it would then share the same origin as Irish naigin and Scottish Gaelic noigean rather than be derived from same.

Loaf is much easier, it is simply the abbreviation for ‘loaf of bread’ and rhyming slang for ‘head’.

Nut is also fairly easy to see as likening the hard skull to the hard exterior of a nut, the head being the only reasonably sized part of the body to do so.

Noodle was an English synonym for a simpleton by the middle of the eighteenth century and predictably went on to become a slang term for the head.

Bonce, my particular favourite, can also be bonse and is first seen in the latter part of the nineteenth century when it was used to describe two very different things. It is easy to see how a large marble called a bonce will have soon been used to refer to the head. Similarly the bonce was also a term used by schoolboys to refer to the headmaster, again a short step to refer to the human head. It is difficult to know which came first as both appeared in writing at more or less the same time.

On the head we have a face incorporating the ears and eyes. Taking these in order the ears, seemingly forever objects of ridicule, are known as the lug or more often said as lughole. The lug is not true slang for it has been used in Scotland since at least the sixteenth century, the etymology remains obscure. Eyes are easier, either speaking of peepers, clearly derived from ‘peeping’, or mince pies, rhyming slang for eyes.

Noses are also found on the head and, with the exception of (as Monty Python described them) ‘the naughty bits’, the one part of the body which seems to have attracted more slang terms than any other. Some are easy to see as alluding to this body part resembling those located in a similar position on other animals. Examples of which include beak, snout, proboscis and trunk.

Conk probably shares its origin with ‘conch’, for it was originally used solely to refer to a particularly fleshy nose which resembled the shell.

Hooter can only describe the sound made when certain individuals blow their nose as if it’s a musical instrument, albeit often a badly tuned one.

Legs are also known as ‘pins’, for obvious reasons. Indeed the only slang term which wasn’t self-explanatory was ‘gam’ which we see as an American term. It must have come from gamb for this is the heraldic description for a leg.

Feet are known as ‘tootsies’, a variation on ‘toddle’ as in ‘walk’. The term ‘plates’ is short for ‘plates of meat’ and thus rhyming slang.

Then of course we come to those aforementioned ‘naughty bits’ (I stick with Python’s terminology as ‘private parts’ irritates me as I consider ALL my parts to be private). Predictably there are more names for these parts than everywhere else combined and I’m sure others are created very regularly. I consulted the Dictionary of Historical Slang and, merely flicking through the pages, it soon became evident there was a least one male and one female term on almost every one of its thousand plus pages.

In the light of the sheer numbers involved, and so as not to appear overly explicit, vulgar, demeaning, or politically incorrect I decided to omit any references to the male wedding tackle or the female equivalent (save for those) while all breasts will also be left out, be they male or female (and no mention of ‘moobs’ as I find this most offensive, they are ‘measts’ if you please).

However irrespective of gender we all have one ‘naughty bit’ in common and as the subject of bottoms will always illicit a laugh, I decided to end (pun intended) with slang terms for the rear. This is nowhere near a comprehensive list, I have chosen a few samples but doubtless will return to the subject if I ever find myself at a loss for something to post.

Bum is, after the original Saxon arse, the most common term. It predates ‘bottom’ and is thought to have originated as ‘imitating the sound of an explosion’ – hence the bum was named from the fart which is roughly equal to Ford naming their new model the Carbon Monoxide. Incidentally the use of ‘bottom’ from the eighteenth century led to ‘bum’ being considered vulgar.

Fundament was in use by the thirteenth century, literally referring to the ‘foundation’ and an early forerunner of such easily recognized terms such as ‘sit upon’, ‘seat’, ‘backside’, ‘behind’, ‘posterior’ and even ‘derriere’.

Prat is in general use as a synonym for ‘foolish’ but began as slang for the good old bottom and is first seen in writing in 1610 with the line “And tip lower with thy prat”. The origin is unknown although I’m sure that prat has fallen out of favour is undoubtedly appreciated by those named Rear of the Year.

Two centuries later it became known as ‘the ultimatum’, easy to see as from the Latin meaning ‘the farthest point’. Incidentally Latin is also used for the anatomical name, the buttocks being ‘nates’ and, if you are unfortunate enough to only have one, the singular ‘natis’.

I have missed many expressions out because they are largely Americanisms and have only caught on in the UK owing to the vast number of broadcasting hours devoted to US imports. However usage of ‘fanny’ in the US to refer to the posterior is hardly likely to catch on to the west of the Atlantic owing to its use to describe another body part. It is used in the States as a diminutive for ‘Frances’, just why this nickname developed is a mystery although there are numerous (highly questionable) suggestions. I include this term here for its use in the Provence region of France. Here the game of petanque is played and when a player is beaten 13-0, the worst possible score, the phrase “Il est fanny” (he is fanny) is heard and the loser is expected to pay the standard forfeit. This involves kissing a woman by the name of Fanny on the bottom. Presumably there is a dearth of women of this name or, perhaps more likely, they are sick and tired of crap petanque players trying to kiss their derriere. Either way the French always bring to the game an image of a mademoiselle baring her posterior, which could be in the form of a picture, a carving, or piece of pottery. This certainly explains why petanque has never caught on in the UK.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.