Word Play – Nursery rhymes

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Today is Friday, March 19th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Myrna Brown.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham.

Hey, before we go any further, we have a small request to make. Our stock of prerolls is getting low again. You know, those program introductions that everyone loves so much. So if you haven’t done one yet, or if you feel inspired to record another one, now’s your chance. 

You’ll find all the instructions at worldandeverything.org. Click on the “Engage” tab at the top of the page and then “Record a preroll.” Just remember, it needs to begin with: “The World and Everything in It is made possible by listeners like us.”

BROWN: And then it needs to end with, “I hope you enjoy today’s program!”

BASHAM: Yeah, and between those two, you can get a little creative! Just keep the whole thing to 20 seconds. Multiple speakers are fine, just not at the same time. Please and thank you!

BROWN: Now it’s time for Word Play with George Grant. He’s got the backstory on some well known nursery rhymes.

GEORGE GRANT: Whenever I return home from a long trip, I often think of the wonderful line, “Home again, home again, jiggety jig.” It comes from the old English nursery rhyme, “To Market.” Maybe you’ve heard it before: To market, to market, to buy a fat pig; home again, home again, jiggety jig. To market, to market, to buy a fat hog; home again, home again, jiggety jog. To market, to market, to buy a plum bun; home again, home again, market is done.”

Although their origins remain murkily uncertain, scholars of English folklore believe that almost all our traditional nursery rhymes were originally composed as parodies to satirize political and cultural circumstances long ago in British history—making them anything but innocent nonsense ditties.

So, for instance, “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” was probably a complaint against the hardships imposed on the poor by the enclosures of land in the days of King Henry VII. “Georgie, Porgie, Puddin’ and Pie” (a rhyme I wearied of hearing when I was a child) may have been written to poke fun at the Prince Regent, later King George IV, because of his greed, his sloth, and his substantial girth. “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” is said to refer to Richard Cromwell, who was unable to preserve the Commonwealth created by his father or prevent the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. “Humpty, Dumpty” probably refers to the days when the barons confronted King John at Runnymede and toppled him from his solitary seat of power. “Rock-a-Bye, Baby” may have served as a warning to the proud and ambitious nobles, who tended to climb so high that they were apt to fall precipitously at the last. “Jack and Jill” supposedly referred to the scheme to wed Princess Mary Tudor to King Louis XII of France. “Little Boy Blue” is said to refer to Cardinal Wolsey who lost favor with Henry VIII because he was unable to win a papal dispensation for the king’s divorce. “Little Miss Muffet” according to one oft disputed account, may have referred to Mary Queen of Scots, who sat on her tuffet, a three-legged stool, during her confrontation with John Knox, portrayed as a wily spider. “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is said to be a lament for the persecution of Protestant believers during the “killing years” of Bloody Mary.

We probably could go on and on. But, back to the rhyme at hand: some scholars think the “jiggety jig” verse parodied the dubious consent Archbishop Cranmer gave to King Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, as well as the nefarious counsel of Thomas Cromwell to confiscate the treasures of the kingdom’s monasteries.

So, given that backstory, I’m not too sure how apt it is for me to sing this rhyme when I return home from a journey. As comedian Dennis Miller has quipped, “That’s the trouble with getting the whole story; that’s the danger of an education: you run the risk of disabusing yourself of comfortable obliviousness.”

I’m George Grant.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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