Playground rhymes and the oral tradition - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


20. Playground rhymes and the oral tradition


Iona Opie


The traditional verbal lore available to children up to the age of about eleven includes nursery rhymes, nonsense and satirical verse, riddles, spooky narratives, verses to chant at particular times of the year, trickery and repartee, formulas with which to regulate relationships, counting-out rhymes and the songs and dialogues that accompany various kinds of games.

A child’s first experience of the charms of tradition is in the form of a lullaby (the word means ‘lull to bye-byes’, that is, to sleep). Lullabies must be the most instinctive music in the world; a woman with a child in her arms automatically rocks it and sings. Even today, the song may be only a repetition of meaningless hushing syllables sung to a spontaneous tune, but more often than not a young mother will sing a lullaby handed down in her own family, possibly for generations. The tune is more important than the words, for if the tune is soothing, the infant cannot know whether it is being bribed into quietness (‘Dinna mak’ a din,/An’ ye’ll get a cakie/When the baker comes in’) or threatened (‘Baby, baby, naughty baby/Hush you squalling thing, I say’). Nor can it be frightened by the storyline of the best known of all lullabies, ‘Hush-a-bye, baby, on the tree top,/When the wind blows the cradle will rock,/When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,/Down will come baby, cradle and all.’

Lullabies come under the heading of nursery rhymes, that comprehensive collection of songs and verses which assist grown-ups in pacifying and entertaining children from birth to the age of about five. Known as Mother Goose rhymes in the eighteenth century after the influential nursery rhyme booklet Mother Goose’s Melody (c. 1765), probably compiled by Oliver Goldsmith, they have retained the appellation in the USA. In England the term ‘nursery rhymes’ began to be used soon after the turn of the century, promoted by Ann and Jane Taylor’s immensely successful Rhymes for the Nursery (1806), and James Kendrew of York’s pirated edition of 1812, which was entitled Nursery Rhymes, for the Amusement of Children. The earliest record of the term having entered the language is in The British Review, August 1815, when the reviewer of Wordsworth’s The Excursion took to task those who were currently condemning his poems as being ‘beneath the dignity of what they call poetry, and as worthy only of being celebrated in nursery-rhymes’.

The huge diversity of the nursery rhyme corpus (there are 800 rhymes in The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (Opie and Opie 1955)) includes verses suited to every practical purpose as well as songs to take the imagination soaring. There are baby games to play with the child’s features, fingers and toes, dandling rhymes and knee rides; and occasional rhymes to chant when it is raining or snowing, or when a ladybird or snail is encountered. Alphabet and number rhymes, riddles, tongue twisters, rhymed proverbs and rhymes of advice are for people approaching school age. However, the lines which have caused nursery rhyme books to be called ‘poets’ primers’ are from evocative, magical songs like ‘How Far Is It to Babylon?’, ‘I Have Four Sisters beyond the Sea’, and ‘Tom, He Was a Piper’s Son’, with its refrain of ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’. These, and the long balladlike songs such as ‘A Fox Jumped Up One Winter’s Night’, are for aesthetic pleasure alone, and lucky is the family who has at least one performer who can say or sing some of them from beginning to end.

Most people, even those who disclaim any repertoire, will find that they know about twelve nursery rhymes, which are in such common use that they seem to be ‘in the air’ and no one can remember how they first came to know them. These are the rhymes most illustrated in ephemeral children’s books, and used to decorate babies’ toys and children’s china. Typically, they are narratives which pack a whole drama into four or six lines, and describe characters which have entered the English language: everyone understands an allusion to the Grand Old Duke of York’s march or Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. They include ‘Hey Diddle Diddle, the Cat and the Fiddle’, ‘Hickory, Dickory, Dock’ (with its limerick-like structure), and a group of histories, each beginning Little Somebody-or- other and each containing six dactylic lines, which may have originated in a seventeenth-century craze similar to the later limerick craze. The best known of these are ‘Little Miss Muffet’, ‘Little Polly Flinders’, and ‘Little Jack Horner’, but other, less skilful attempts have survived, such as ‘Little Poll Parrot’ and ‘Little General Monk’ (General Monk was a famous Cromwellian soldier who died in 1669).

Two of the chief characteristics of nursery rhymes are their brevity and strongly marked rhythm; in fact these may be said to be necessary qualifications for a verse to enter the nursery rhyme canon, since they ensure memorability. In a desperate need to pacify or divert a squalling infant, an adult needs to recall instantly the rhyme that will do the trick.

Another effect of the emphatic syllables is to implant the rhythms of the English language in minds too young to understand all the words (and some of the words are distinctly archaic). Rhymes with trochaic lines, like ‘Baa, baa, black sheep’ and ‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall’, are the simplest for two-year-olds to master, and are favourites for reciting to admiring grandparents.

The overwhelming majority of nursery rhymes were not in the first place composed for children. They are for the most part fragments of songs and ballads originally intended for adult delectation. For instance, the ballad of the ‘Moste Strange weddinge of the ffrogge and the mowse’ was registered at Stationers’ Hall in 1580, and went through various transmogrifications before, in the early nineteenth century, Grimaldi made famous the version with the refrain ‘Rowley, powley, gammon and spinach’ which is still popular today. ‘Lavender’s Blue’ and ‘One Misty Moisty Morning’ were, in the second half of the seventeenth century, black-letter ballads written by anonymous literary hacks.

Anonymity is, by definition, a requirement of traditional verse, which is handed down by word of mouth without thought of authorship. The few authors of nursery rhymes whose names are known are never credited with their productions. Who cares to know that Sir Charles Sedley wrote ‘There Was a Little Man, And He Woo’ed a Little Maid’ (1764), and Septimus Winner ‘Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?’ (1864); or, among the few compositions written for children, that Jane Taylor wrote ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ (1806) and Sarah Josepha Hale ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ (1830)? ‘Wee Willie Winkie’ was the first verse of a poem about a ‘waukrife laddie that winna fall asleep’, written by William Miller, published in 1841, and immediately commandeered for inclusion in nursery rhyme books, stripped of its Scotticisms and unacknowledged.

A large number of nursery rhymes have not been found recorded before the nineteenth century, when folklore of every kind began to be taken seriously and investigated, but haphazard references from the Middle Ages onwards confirm the existence of some of them. A phrase of ‘Infir Taris’ is recorded about 1450; ‘White Bird Featherless’ appears (in Latin) in the tenth century; the germ of ‘Two Legs Sat on Three Legs’ may be seen in the works of Bede. Agricola (b. 1492) learnt the German version of ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’ from his parents. The whole of ‘I Have a Young Sister Far beyond the Sea’ had been set down by 1450. A French version of ‘Thirty Days Hath September’ belongs to the thirteenth century. A game of ‘falling bridges’, on the lines of ‘London Bridge’, seems to have been known to Meister Altswert in the late fourteenth century.

References in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to verses now known in the nursery exist in some number. Almost certainly one in nine of the rhymes were known by the mid-seventeenth century. At least a quarter and very likely over half the rhymes are more than 200 years old. However, before the emergence of nursery rhyme literature in the eighteenth century, the glimpses we get of the existence of children’s lore are by the way; a clergyman (1671), wishing to illustrate a theological point, quotes ‘A Apple Pie’; an ageing lexicographer (1611), attempting to define the Italian word abomba, recalls part of a rhyme from his childhood, ‘as we use to say Home againe home againe market is done’; a pamphleteer (1606), reporting a murder trial, reveals that children regularly repeated a Cock a doodle doo couplet; and a playwright (c. 1559) introducing a clown singing old songs (‘Tom a lin’ among them) makes him admit they were learnt from his fond mother ‘As I war wont in her lappe to sit’.

It is the difficulty of dating the nursery rhymes precisely, and their anonymity, that has made them so suitable for ingenious historical ‘interpretations’. As early as 1708 Dr William King was speculating light-heartedly on the identity of Old King Cole in his satirical Useful Transactions in Philosophy. Sixty years later the jesting editor of Mother Goose’s Melody gave birth to a new set of propositions, still sometimes taken seriously (for instance, that the old woman tossed in a blanket was composed in derision of Henry V when, during the Hundred Years War, he conceived new designs against the French).

The game of fitting historical events to the rhymes was especially popular in the twentieth century, and Katherine Elwes Thomas’s The Real Personages of Mother Goose, published in 1930, provided shadow personalities for most of the best-known rhyme characters (best known in the present day, be it noted, but not likely to have been known at the time of their supposed historical origin): thus Bopeep became Mary, Queen of Scots; Jack Sprat, Charles I; Old Mother Hubbard, Cardinal Wolsey; Tommy Tucker, also Cardinal Wolsey, and so on. Amusing and often detailed ‘solutions’ to the rhymes continue to be invented, usually in universities (for example, the equation of Humpty Dumpty with Dr Chillingworth’s tortoise-like siege machines of the ancient Roman type, tried out during the siege of Gloucester in 1643, a theory Professor David Daube put forward in The Oxford Magazine of 16 February 1956). This is ingenuity for ingenuity’s sake; but the inventor must also feel some satisfaction if, as with the current craze for horrific ‘urban legends’, he can watch his story spreading to a public gullible enough to repeat it in earnest.

Like other oral traditions, nursery rhymes have also been disseminated in print. Once it was allowed that books for children should contain entertainment as well as instruction, nursery songs were naturally considered candidates for inclusion. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, in the reign of Queen Anne, appeared a primer, A Little Book for Little Children, by T. W. (c. 1712), which contained ‘A Was an Archer’ and ‘I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail’, as well as three well-known riddle verses. The first considerable nursery rhyme book was Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, published in two volumes by M. Cooper ‘According to Act of Parliament’, probably in 1744. Only ‘Voll. II’ survives, in a unique copy in the British Library. Measuring only 3 x 1% inches, it nevertheless contains thirty-nine rhymes which (with three exceptions) are as familiar to the child of today as they were to the young Boswells and Cowpers and Gibbons, its readers at the time: ‘There was a little Man, And he had a little Gun’, ‘Who did kill Cock Robbin?’, ‘Bah, Bah, a black sheep’, ‘Hickere, Dickere Dock’. Nearly every rhyme is illustrated with a pleasant and appropriate little woodcut. The far-sighted publisher was Mary Cooper, whose imprint also appears on works by Gray, Fielding and Pope.

The publication of illustrated nursery rhyme books has continued unabated until the present day, when superb Mother Goose picture books are a mainstay of the children’s books market and it seems to be the ambition of every established illustrator to ‘do a Mother Goose’. There has also been a constant flow backwards and forwards between oral tradition and literature. Consider only two examples: Lewis Carroll’s use of nursery rhymes in the Alice books, and Robert Burns’s use of traditional songs as a basis for his own lyrics. Burns’s song ‘My love, she’s but a Lassie yet’ was written for the third part of Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum (1790); but a verse of it (‘We’re all dry with drinking on’t’) had already appeared, most unsuitably, nearly fifty years before in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book.

When children go to school they encounter a quite different oral tradition. It might be said that while nursery rhymes echo the voice of the adult, being adult approved and adult transmitted, school rhymes echo the voice of children out on their own in a potentially unfriendly world. The rhymes pass with lightning speed from one child to another, and have a quite different character. They have a different cadence, and a difference purpose, which is often mockery. Schoolchildren will chant: ‘Good King Wenceslas/Knocked a bobby [policeman] senseless/Right in the middle of Marks and Spencer’s [a British chain of shops]’, and: ‘Julius Caesar the Roman geezer/Squashed his wife in a lemon squeezer’. They parody the rhymes their parents taught them at home:


Mary had a little lamb

She also had a bear;

I’ve often seen her little lamb

But I’ve never seen her ‘bear’.


Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall

Eating black bananas.

Where do you think he put the skins?

Down his best pyjamas.


Their mockery includes rhymes which can be recited sotto voce to make fun of a teacher. The most popular is one which was already known in 1797, when it appeared in the song book Infant Amusements:


Mr — is a very good man,

He tries to teach us all he can,

Reading, writing, arithmetic,

And he doesn’t forget to use the stick.


When he does he makes us dance

Out of England into France,

Out of France into Spain,

Over the hills and back again.


Schoolchildren have preserved the ancient art of riddling in its true form (to be found, for instance, in the predominantly eighth-century riddles in the Exeter Book), in which some creature or object is described in an intentionally obscure manner. Characteristically, children continue to take delight in amusements once enjoyed, and now discarded, by adults. For instance, in the mid-1950s a thirteen-year-old boy from Knighton, in Radnorshire, wrote down a riddle, ‘What goes up a tree with its head turned downwards? A nail in your boot’, which was printed in the adult-oriented Booke of Meery Riddles, 1629: ‘What is it that goes to the water on the head? It is a horse-shoe naile.’ Another riddle in the same work, ‘What is that: goeth through the wood, and leaveth on every bush a rag? It is snow’, was known to a fifteen-year-old girl in Kirkcaldy in 1952, though with the answer ‘A sheep’:


Round the rocks And round the rocks

The ragged rascal ran,

And every bush he came to,

He left his rags and ran.


Usually, however, what the present-day schoolchild means by ‘a riddle’ is really a conundrum, whose wit depends on a pun. Many conundrums still popular today have been found in literature of the first half of the nineteenth century, a typical example being ‘What is the difference between a warder and a jeweller? One watches cells and the other sells watches.’

Whereas the playground narratives of the mid-twentieth century made fun of death and decay, children today apparently prefer to retell the explicitly sexual stories they learn from their older brothers. On certain occasions at home, however, and especially at Hallowe’en, they like to frighten each other with spooky tales, told softly, in which the tension builds up until the last word is suddenly and frighteningly shouted. The best-known such tale is undoubtedly,


In the dark, dark wood, there was a dark, dark house,

And in that dark, dark house, there was a dark, dark room,

And in that dark, dark room, there was a dark, dark cupboard,

And in that dark, dark cupboard, there was a dark, dark shelf,

And in that dark, dark shelf, there was a dark, dark box,

And in that dark, dark box, there was a GHOST!


In the remoter parts of Britain children mark the seasons by going round to their neighbours and chanting traditional verses, in expectation of some small reward in money or kind. For instance, on Exmoor and in the Bredon Hills, at least until the 1950s, the custom of Lent Crocking was still carried out at Shrovetide. Children with soot-blackened faces went round the farmhouses, and after singing, ‘Tippety, tippety tin, Give me a pancake and I will come in. Tippety, tippety toe, Give me a pancake and I will go’, they crept in - if the door was left open - threw a load of broken crocks on the floor and tried to escape unseen. If the householders caught them they had their faces further blackened with soot, were given a pancake and allowed to go.

It is difficult to know how many of the little songs asking for a gift in exchange for seasonal good wishes are still extant. Perhaps those collected in the 1950s as material for The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (Opie and Opie 1959) have disappeared in response to a new social climate in which children have more money at their disposal, and are more protected and escorted. Of the various celebrations conducted by children on their own initiative, at Christmas and New Year, on St Valentine’s Day and May Day, at All Souls and in the weeks before Guy Fawkes Day, the most likely to have survived is probably May Day (especially in Manchester), when little groups of girls chose a queen, visited their neighbours with the maypole they had decorated, and sang a song such as:


Around this merry maypole

And through the livelong day

For gentle - -       

Is crowned the Queen of May.

With hearts and voices ringing

We merrily dance today,

For gentle - -       

Is crowned the Queen of May.


The Hallowe’en custom ‘Trick or Treat’, which flourishes in the USA as an occasion for children to dress up in fancy dress and go round the neighbourhood asking for sweets and other goodies (the implied threat seldom if ever being carried out) has been reimported to Britain. It is a development of a darker Celtic belief that evil spirits were abroad on the eve of All Saints’ Day and that ‘guising’ (disguising) oneself was a way of avoiding danger. Some of the more jocular rhymes celebrating the night linger on in Scotland:


This is the nicht o’ Hallowe’en

When the witches can be seen,

Some are black and some are green,

And some the colour o’ a turkey bean.


Human society has a tendency to split into antagonistic groups, and children are no exception. Other schools and localities, members of other religions or political parties, and supporters of other football teams, are seen as peculiar, unpleasantly different and possibly threatening. The rhymes children shout at these outsiders are no less irritating for being traditional, and seem designed to lead to a skirmish. Those attending Forfar Academy used, in the 1950s, to be harassed by: ‘Academy kites, ye’re no very nice,/Ye bake yer bannocks wi’ cats and mice.’ Recognisably the same formula had been used, a hundred years before (as M. A. Denham reported in Folk-lore of the Northern Counties (1858)) to denigrate the inhabitants of a Northumberland village:


The Spittal wives are no’ very nice,

They bake their bread wi’ bugs and lice:

And after that they skin the cat,

And put it into their kail-pat,

That makes their broo’ baith thick and fat.


Even artificial groups created in schools, as for instance teams denominated the Red and the Blue, raise a partisan spirit, and enthusiastic supporters yell the following adjustable encouragement:


Red, red, the bonnie red,

The red that should be worn;

Blue, blue, the dirty blue,

The blue that should be torn.


The armoury of the schoolchild is filled with verbal weapons of attack and defence which are of importance for survival in the milieu of the playground. They are effective because they have been tested by time (though the children are not aware they are old) and because they are immediately available in situations when there is no time for original thought. Well-established rhymes of an insulting nature can be launched on the spur of the moment against anyone felt to be obnoxious. A person who is ‘being silly’ is told,


You’re daft, you’re potty, you’re barmy,

You ought to join the army.

You got knocked out With a brussel sprout,

You’re daft, you’re potty, you’re barmy.


Someone thought to be staring too hard (an intrusion on privacy which is universally resented) is warned, ‘Stare, stare, like a bear,/Then you’ll know me anywhere’; and the accused one may reply, ‘I’m looking at you with your face so blue/And your nose turned up like a kangaroo.’ Liars, especially, are vilified (‘Liar, liar, your pants are on fire’), and can only defend themselves with solemn oaths (‘Wet my finger, wipe it dry, Cut my throat if I tell a lie’). Cowards, cry-babies and sneaks have been ritually taunted with their failings for a hundred years and more: ‘Cowardy, cowardy, custard’ is part of the title of a pantomime of 1836; ‘Cry, baby, cry’ is quoted in an essay by Charles Lamb in The London Magazine, April 1821; and ‘Tell tale tit’ appeared in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, vol. 2, 1744 (‘Spit Cat, Spit, Your tongue shall be slit, And all the Dogs in our Town Shall have a bit’).

If, in the past, more notice had been taken of the minor delights of childhood, the same sort of antiquity could probably be claimed for many of the catches with which schoolchildren amuse and tease each other. A correspondent to Notes and Queries (1905) showed that the lines ‘Adam and Eve and Pinch-me/went down to the river to bathe;/Adam and Eve were drowned,/Who do you think was saved?’ were already ‘a schoolboy’s catch for the innocent new boy’ in 1855. The trick dialogue beginning ‘I went up one pair of stairs’ and ending ‘I saw a monkey’, with the dupe having to answer ‘Just like me’ after each statement, was recorded by J. O. Halliwell in The Nursery Rhymes of England (1844).

Rhyme and assonance give an almost spell-like authority, and this is exploited in the solemn oaths and imprecations children use to regulate their social life. When swearing to the truth they will chant, with hands crossed over heart, ‘Cross my heart and hope to die,/Drop down dead if I tell a lie.’ They will confirm a bargain by linking little fingers and reciting, ‘Touch teeth, touch leather,/Can’t have back for ever and ever.’ As with swopping, so with giving. Something given must not be asked for again, and the answer to one who does so is the centuries-old formula (which once more directly consigned the asker to the Devil), ‘Give a thing, take a thing,/Dirty man’s plaything.’ The ability to keep a secret is tested with a rhymed ritual:


Can you keep a secret?

I don’t suppose you can.

You mustn’t laugh or giggle

While I tickle your hand.


And even the quick-fire exclamations needed for claiming something found are often thought to need the reinforcement of rhyme: ‘Finders keepers,/Losers weepers!’

Regulatory rhymes are also needed to organise the playing of games. At the outset of a game of He (or Tig, Tag or Touch, according to locality) the players must form up in a line or circle and the ‘boss’ of the game counts along the line the number of counts prescribed by the stressed syllables of some little rhyme such as the following, which has fifteen counts:


Errie, orrie, round the table,

Eat as much as you are able;

If you’re able eat the table,

Errie, orrie, out.


When the word ‘out!’ falls on a person they must stand aside, and the survivor - on whom the count has never fallen - has to take the disliked role of chaser. This procedure is known as ‘dipping’. Sometimes the dipping can be extended by using fists (as in ‘One potato, two potato, three potato, four,/Five potato, six potato, seven potato, More!’ when one fist is put behind the player’s back on ‘More!’) or by counting-round on feet in a similar fashion. However, the most enjoyable verses incorporate an element of choice (which, if the player is quick-witted, can be adjusted to avoid the count landing unfavourably). One such is ‘My Mother and Your Mother’, an old-established favourite in Scotland, where an Edinburgh version was recorded among The Rymour Club Miscellanea (vol. 1, 1906-11):


My mother and your mother

Were hanging out the clothes,

My mother gave your mother

A punch on the nose.

What colour was the blood?

Shut your eyes and think.


B-L-U-E spells blue, and out you go

With a jolly good clout upon your big nose.


The most interesting of these rhymes are perhaps the mysterious rigmaroles that the children sometimes refer to as Chinese counting. They are gibberish, yet sound as if they might contain some hidden meaning. A widespread favourite in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s went like this:


Eenie, meenie, macca, racca,

Air, rie, dominacca,

Chicka pocka, lollipoppa,

Om pom push.


whose predecessors in the nineteenth century were composed of completely meaningless syllables. An example is the following from the Northumberland Glossary (vol. 2, 1854):


Any, many, mony, my,

Barcelony, stony, sty,

Harum, scarum, frownum ack,

Harricum, barricum, wee, wo, wack.


Other groups of variants exist. Those beginning ‘Inty, minty, tippety, fig’ have always had a more lively existence in America than in Britain. Those beginning ‘Zeenty teenty’ were popular in Scotland in the nineteenth century and remain in circulation. The starting point, or inspiration, or source of occasional words in ‘Zeenty teenty’ and its associates, would appear to be versions of the ‘Shepherd’s score’, so called, the numerals reputedly employed in past times by shepherds counting their sheep, by fishermen assessing their catch, and by old women minding their stitches. In the north of England this score is still known, not only to old folk but to children when dipping; though the scores vary, in a typical example, the first ten numerals are ‘An, tan, tethera, methera, pimp, sethera, lethera, hothera, dothera, dick’. However, the relationship between the children’s rhymes and the shepherds’ scores is not close.

The games of children are accompanied by verses and songs which, later in life, are remembered with affection - and a certain puzzlement, for most of the older songs have been corrupted in their passage through oral tradition into a kind of surrealist poetry. A singing game like ‘The Wind Blows High’ is losing popularity in its old ring form, as a mating game, since girls, now the custodians of the singing game tradition, are beginning to find it unnatural to play the roles of both sexes. The power of the story is, however, undeniable:


The wind, the wind, the wind blows high,

The rain comes scattering down the sky,

He is handsome, she is pretty,

She is a girl of London City,

He comes a-courting of one, two, three,

And may I tell you who it be?

Tommy Johnson says he loves her,

All the boys are fighting for her.

He takes her in the garden, he sits her on his knee,

And says, Pretty girl, will you marry me?

Pick up a pin and knock at the door,

And say has Tommy been here before?

She’s in, she’s in, she’s never been out,

She’s in the parlour walking about.

She comes down as white as snow,

With a baby in her arms all dressed in silk.


The story of the girl of London City has, however, not been relinquished. The first verse, with its haunting tune, has been turned into a skipping song; it functions very well, with the skipper calling the next player into the rope at ‘May I tell you who it be?’

The main custodians of the oral literature of childhood are female. Mothers and grandmothers purvey nursery rhymes; and it is the girls who cherish and pass on the singing games and the multitude of rhymes used in the skipping, ball-bouncing and clapping games. Whether this is because females have a stronger sense of tradition, or because they have a stronger appreciation of rhyme and rhythm, is not clear. Certainly it is generally assumed that they enjoy repetitive words and actions.

When skipping in a long rope ceased being a boys’ game and came into the possession of girls, towards the end of the nineteenth century, it was increasingly ornamented with rhymes which regulated the movement of the players through the rope. The rhymes may be custom-made, like ‘All in Together, Girls’, which brings players into the rope, and sends them out again, one by one; a version of this was in circulation c. 1900, and it is still a favourite today:


All in together, girls,

Never mind the weather, girls,

When it is your birthday,

Please jump in [later, ‘jump out’]

January, February, March ...


Or they might foretell the future, like the ever-popular,


Raspberry, strawberry, apple tart,

Tell me the name of your sweetheart,

A, B, C ...


which, in the 1890s, was a divination formula for use in a game of battledore and shuttlecock. Or they might be old songs, sung once through for each skipper. The following, in the 1870s simply a set of words for the Sultan Polka, was being used for skipping by the 1890s (Gomme 1898: 203):


Dancing Dolly had no sense,

For to fiddle [more often ‘She bought a fiddle’] for eighteen pence;

All the tunes that she could play,

Were ‘Sally get out of the donkey’s way’.


Some of the words girls chant while juggling two balls against a wall have instructions built into them - ‘Oliver Twist’ for instance:


Oliver Twist

Can you do this? [clap]

If so, do so [clap]

First your knee [touch knee]

Next your toe [touch toe]

Then under you go [lift leg over ball]


The actions named must be performed; then the rhyme is repeated and the hands clapped before the knee, and so on, is touched; then all actions are performed ‘Standstills’ without lifting a foot; then ‘Dancing Dollies’, doing a kind of dance; lastly, ‘Faraways’, when the player stands further away from the wall and the ball is allowed to bounce once before the action.

Another regulatory rhyme is ‘Plainsie, clapsie,/Round the world to backsie,/Highsie toosh, lowsie toosh,/Touch the ground and under.’ But most of the ball-bouncing rhymes have the same character as the rest of children’s oral literature; everyday life and fantasy are inextricably mixed, and the whole is suffused by an air of defiant gaiety. They chant ‘Mademoiselle she went to the well, Robin Hood and his merry men,/Went to school at half past ten, Winnie the witch fell in a ditch,/Found a penny and thought she was rich’, and many other rhymes, some of which are borrowed from the disciplines of skipping and counting-out.

If the totality of children’s experience of oral literature is to be covered, mention must be made of the dialogues which precede some of the side-to-side catching games, and of the strange, archaic-seeming scenarios of the acting games. In ‘Sheep, Sheep, Come Home’, for instance, a game also traditional in German-speaking countries and in Italy, a player in the role of shepherd calls ‘Sheep, sheep, come home’ and the sheep reply ‘We are afraid.’ ‘What of?’ says the shepherd. ‘The wolf,’ say the sheep. The shepherd deludes them, saying, ‘The wolf has gone to Devonshire, Won’t be back for seven year, Sheep, sheep, come home.’ The sheep run towards the shepherd and the wolf springs out and tries to catch one of them, who becomes the next wolf.

The acting game of ‘Fox and Chickens’ is possibly the weirdest of this weird genre. The actors are the fox, the mother hen and the chickens, who form up in single file behind the hen, holding on to each other. They march up to the fox, who is crouching on the ground, and chant:


Chickany, chickany, crany crow,

I went to the well to wash my toe,

When I came back a chicken was dead.


Then the hen asks ‘What are you doing, old fox?’ and he replies in a gruff voice, ‘Picking up sticks.’ ‘What for?’ ‘To make a fire.’ ‘What do you want a fire for?’ ‘To cook a chicken.’ ‘Where will you get it?’ ‘Out of your flock.’ As the fox says this he springs up and tries to seize the last chicken in the line. When he catches her, he takes her back to his den, and the whole scene is gone through again and again until all the chickens have been caught. The game has been known under many names, through many centuries - it seems to be referred to a number of times as far back as the Middle Ages - and in many countries of the world. In the older versions the sinister crouching figure, who is sometimes a hawk or wolf, and is sometimes sharpening a knife, raises a dark, mythological shadow.

Oral traditions are subject to change, and children’s rhymes are no exception. Words take the place of other words, usually through misunderstandings, as when the old Scottish singing game ‘I Lost My Lad and I Care Nae’ became ‘I Lost My Lad in the Cairnie’ and then ‘Rosa Love a Canary’. Shifts in taste and contemporaneity account for other changes. Thus in ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ the line ‘Sing cuckolds all on a row’ became, more politely, ‘And pretty maids all in a row’; and a 1956 parody of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ was found, when collected as a ball-bounce chant in 1975, to have shed its dramatis personae - the Yellow Rose herself and Davy Crockett - in favour of Batman and Robin, and Cinderella.

Often the change in the lore is caused by a change in use. Take the old courting game ‘All the Boys in Our Town’, for instance, in which, during the nineteenth century, each turn at choosing from the ring was prefaced by as many as twenty-four lines of song. Revived as a skipping game, the chant was necessarily shortened and became only eight brisk lines. Songs have a tendency to split or coalesce in an almost biological manner. An example is the clapping sequence ‘Under the bram bushes, under the sea’, which was originally a students’ song formed from two popular songs, ‘Harry Harndin’s a Cannibal King’ (1895) and Cole and Johnson’s ‘Under the Bamboo Tree’ (1902). The central verse of this amalgamation developed into the clapping verse, ‘bamboo tree’ became ‘bram bushes’, and ‘When we are married happy we will be’ proliferated into a variety of forms of which this Leeds (1973) version is typical: ‘True love for you, my darling,/True love for me;/And when we are married,/We’ll raise a family,/With a boy for you,/and a girl for me,/I tiddley om pom, pom pom’ (which itself carries echoes of Vincent Youmans’ song ‘Tea for Two’ (1924)). The custodians of oral lore have a careless and carefree way with their inheritance.



Gomme, A. B. (1894, 1898) Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 2 vols, London: David Nutt.

Opie, I. and Opie, P. (1955) The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

- (1959) The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Further reading

Douglas, N. (1916) London Street Games, London: St Catherine Press.

Newell, W. W. (1883) Games and Songs of American Children, New York: Harper Brothers.

Opie, I. and Opie, P. (1951) The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

- (1969) Children’s Games in Street and Playground, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

- (1985) The Singing Game, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ritchie, J. T. R. (1964) The Singing Street, Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd.

- (1965) Golden City, Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd.