Nursery rhymes: time capsules of language
It’s uncanny: when most of us hear the lines “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” or “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall”, we find our brains mysteriously capable (how many years after our youth?) of reciting the full nursery rhyme, as if on autopilot. These are rhymes many begin to learn in the cradle from parents who had learned them in the same way from their parents—and so on and so on, across generations. Indeed, many of the most famous are hundreds of years old.
The result? Words we would never think to use in our day-to-day lives—old words, whose meanings have become largely unknown to modern minds—are preserved in the amber of these time-worn verses. Here, we take a look at some of those fossils of English past only recognizable from nursery rhymes, as well as their long-forgotten definitions.
Jack and Jill
The very first meaning of the word crown is “a circular ornamental headdress”; the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) dates this word to Old English, and notes that it is originally from the classical Latin corōna (a word which may remind you of a certain Mexican beer; take a look at the label next time you have one!). This “headdress” meaning is, of course, the meaning we primarily refer to today when we use the word.
But was Jack actually wearing a crown when fetching a pail of water? It seems unlikely, especially when one considers that later (around the year 1275, according to the OED) crown came to refer to “the top part of the skull”. Furthermore, the OED actually quotes from the nursery rhyme at this sense of crown:
1785 Mother Goose’s Melody 37 Jack fell down And broke his Crown, And Gill came tumbling after.
It appears Jack must have sustained a pretty serious injury on that hill.
Little Miss Muffet
What rhymes with Muffet? Tuffet, naturally.
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey.
There are various theories regarding the meaning of tuffet in this context. It is usually taken to mean “a footstool”, and indeed, the OED quotes from this nursery rhyme at this sense, but notes that it is uncertain whether Little Miss Muffet was sitting on a “hassock or footstool”; in fact, later uses of the word tuffet to mean footstool may be “due to misunderstanding of the nursery rhyme” and may actually be referring to “a hillock” or a “mound” (otherwise known as a tuft). Another possibility noted by the OED is that the word in the original might not have been tuffet at all but buffet, which does mean “a low stool”, and versions of Little Miss Muffet have been found with buffet in place of tuffet. The entry for tuffet in the OED has yet to be updated as of the time of writing, however, so more information as to the origins of the word could come to light in the future.
As for another portion of this nursery rhyme that may be confusing for a modern reader, curds and whey is probably in reference to a food similar to cottage cheese; curds are the soft, white substances formed when milk sours, while whey is the liquid that remains (cottage cheese is cheese made from these curds, with a little bit of whey left behind).
Hey Diddle Diddle
Hey diddle diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such sport
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
Why the word diddle in this nursery rhyme? It’s probably not just a made-up word intended to rhyme with fiddle—in fact, here it could likely mean “the sound of the fiddle”, perhaps in relation to a sense of the verb fiddle, “to jerk from side to side” (for instance, as a violin bow is jerked side to side across strings). Many nursery rhymes have the word “diddle”, in fact; The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes includes “Hey diddle dout, my candle’s out”, “Hey diddle, dinket, poppety, pet”, and “Diddle diddle dumpling, my son John”, among others.
Sport is also used in this nursery rhyme – or at least this version of the nursery rhyme – in a way that may be less obvious to current readers; though now the word refers mainly to “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment”, this is probably not the meaning intended here. Certainly a cow jumping over the moon would (presumably) require much physical exertion and skill, but the fact that “the little dog laughed” seems to imply that sport is rather being used to mean: “diversion, entertainment, fun”, one of its other definitions (and indeed, “fun” replaces “sport” in other versions of this rhyme). This is reflected in the etymology. Sport is a shortening of disport, meaning “diversion from work or serious matters”. Disport is from Old French desporter, from des- “away” and porter “carry”.
Windows into the past
The catching rhymes, simple meters, and quirky content of nursery rhymes have made them memorable for generations; they are so memorable that even today, hundreds of years later, you will still overhear young parents reciting “Pat-a-cake” with their young children over and over again. But perhaps the really fascinating feature of nursery rhymes is how they may be seen as windows into the past. By remaining largely unchanged over the centuries, these rhymes serve as time capsules, giving us insight into English words that are used less frequently (or not at all) in the present day.