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.

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