That’s why I was so excited to share these two cool true stories of tongue twister origins with you, along with a quick explanation of why a few common etymology stories you’ve probably heard already aren’t actually true.
We all know that Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, but who the heck is Peter and why should we care if he’s got pickled or fresh peppers? As it turns out, this story is far more interesting than the simple tongue twister we’re all familiar with.
First off, it’s important to know a little history about the spice trade. You see, a long, long time ago, all spices were referred to by the generic name of “peppers.” They were also incredibly expensive and the companies who ran the spice trade would go out of their way to keep the supply low by rubbing the seeds with lime before selling them so they couldn’t germinate if planted. The practice was called “pickling.”
As for Peter Piper, he was actually a French pirate and horticulturalist named “Pierre Poivre” (which has become Anglicized into Peter Piper). Pierre was known for raiding spice stores so he could grow them in his garden in Seychelles and hopefully make spices more affordable and accessible for the average European. The rhyme comes from the fact that there were at least a few occasions where Peter Piper picked pickled peppers that wouldn’t grow in his garden.
She Sells Seashells
Personally, I never thought much about the girl who sold seashells by the seashore. But as it turns out, the woman who was made famous in this terribly difficult tongue twister is actually quite the scientist.
Mary Anning enjoyed collecting seashells and fossils ever since her dad taught her how to dig up fossils when she was a little girl. The duo then sold their specimens to beach tourists and she became so famous in this role that Terry Sullivan eventually even wrote the famous tongue twister about her.
Then, in 1811, Anning’s brother noticed a skull sticking out of a cliff near her home. Mary was fascinated by the skull and started digging it out the ground, soon finding a massive skeleton of what she believed was a crocodile. As it turned out though, the giant croc was actually a dinosaur that later was named Ichthyosaurus. As this occurred at a time when most people still didn’t believe in dinosaurs, it was kind of a big deal.
Mary was proud of her discovery and went on discovering more and more dino skeletons, including fossils for a Plesiosaurus, a Pterodactyl and a Squaloraja. These days, many people credit Mary Anning with founding modern day paleontology –and you thought she was just a seashell dealer.
Of course, not all nursery rhyme origins stories are to be believed. Here are a few very untrue, but widely-believed stories about nursery rhyme origins:
Ring Around The Rosie
Perhaps the most common nursery rhyme origins story is the one explaining how Ring Around The Rosie is actually about the Bubonic Plague. I’m sure many of you have heard this one before, as it’s pretty prevalent. The stories explain that “ring around the rosie” refers to symptoms of the disease and the ending “we all fall down” is about everyone dying from the devastating disease.
The problem with this theory? To start with, the plague first appeared in Europe in the 1300’s and the last major wave of the plague died out in the 1600’s, but the nursery rhyme was never published until Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose in 1881. Sure the story could have been passed down orally, but it seems like something that old would have at least been mentioned in some form of written language long before the late nineteenth century.
Also, while there is one generally accepted version of the rhyme in modern times, there used to be a wide variety of regional differences in the lyrics –most of which don’t match the plague story at all. These variations all came around at the same time the song was published. It seems strange that the rhyme would be sung for hundreds of years, but suddenly there would be a dozen versions popping up all in a matter of years,
Even the explanations of the plague connections vary. In fact, the “pocket full of posies” line has been interpreted to mean people carried posies to ward off the disease, that the posies were used to cover up the stench of the sickness, to be placed on the graves of the dead and that the phrase was used as a description of the puss-filled sores of the victims. If the plague story was true, don’t you think the lyrics would be a little more obvious?
What seems more likely is Folklorist Philip Hiscock’s suggestion that the song and related dance were created when Protestants banned formal dancing in their communities. The ring was literally a circle of children in a ring and everyone presumably fell down in a pile after the rhyme and dance were over. It might not be as exciting as the plague story, but it certainly seems a lot more believable.
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Another widely accepted nursery rhyme origin says that “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” was about Queen Mary and her crazed murdering of hundreds of English Protestants. The story says that “how does your garden grow” refers to the growing size of graveyards, that “silver bells and cockleshells” is supposed to represent the torture devices she used before the executions and that “pretty maids all in a row” was a reference to people being killed in a line at either the guillotine or the gallows.
Of course, people also try to say it’s about Mary, Queen of Scotts and her inability to have children. So if it was true, don’t you think it would be a little more direct about the person or subject in question?
But the biggest piece of proof that these explanations aren’t true is the simple fact that this rhyme wasn’t published or mentioned at any point until the 1800’s –a good two hundred years after either queen was in power. Given how stretched the explanations seem, are you really surprised that these tales probably aren’t true?
There are tons of these stories out there, many of which are true, so let’s share! Know a rhyme’s origin story to be true or false? Share it in the comments or, feel free to ask the other readers information about your favorite nursery rhyme’s origins.