Nursery rhymes then and now

Hey Iona Opie, if you’re listening, did you know that the phrase “sit cross-legged” is now unintelligible to preschoolers? It’s been replaced by “criss-cross applesauce.” How cute. At first I thought it was a regional variant, but I was wrong: it’s now the standard in both California and Southern Ontario.

Was this shift organic? Maybe. Another recent shift, certainly organic, is the replacement of “slide down my rain barrel” in the old skipping rhyme with “slide down my rainbow.” That one makes sense: nobody today can imagine sliding down a rain barrel onto a cellar door, if they ever could.

What is certainly not organic is the dumbing down of nursery rhymes in Eila’s schoolwork. Her version of Little Bo Peep contains the lines: “Leave them alone and they’ll come home/ And bring their tails behind them.” How wan! And what will she make of the original phrase — “dragging their tails behind them” — when she comes across it in literature or conversation? It will mean nothing to her.

Even more execrable is “the little dog laughed to see such a sport.” Such a sport?! I have no comment.


9 thoughts on “Nursery rhymes then and now

  1. I learned “bringing their tails behind them” back in the early to mid 60s, just to add a further layer of complication. And how does your original of the line from “Hey Diddle Diddle” run? Ours was as you gave it but without the indefinite article.

  2. Oh Lord, maybe they *can* bring their tails then. Okay. On the other point ,yes: the little dog originally laughed to see “such sport.” This is just an illiteracy, following a failure of imagination. Someone at Eila’s school board can’t conceive of the fact that the noun “sport” can be used to refer to a mode (playing) rather than a definite activity (a game).

  3. The problem I have with the new version of Little Bo Peep is that it’s somewhat ambiguous. “Leave them alone and they’ll come home, and bring their tails behind them,” could be read to suggest that if they were not left alone they would not bring their tails behind them, which is ridiculous. Since sheep will always be bringing their tails behind them regardless of circumstance, this new last line of the rhyme is somewhat “throw-away” adding nothing of substance to the rhyme’s meaning. Bring their tails behind them, like “duh!” Now I’d forgotten the “dragging” version, but on the internet I came across “Wagging their tails behind them.” Wagging tails suggest merriment. In this version, not only will the sheep come home, but they will be content and all will be well with the world.

  4. I didn’t learn nursery rhymes. At all.

    And I hate “Criss Cross Applesauce.” These are actually things that you learn in teacher education courses as to how to instruct students in classroom management. I’ve never used that one because I teach 7th grade.

  5. I have a soft spot for nursery rhymes. There’s a certain stage in a kid’s development when those bouncy rhythms work well, and maybe lay the ground for a future appreciation of poetry. Eila’s mostly too worldly for them now, but there are a few we still like. Try:

    Come, butter, come!
    Come, butter, come!
    Peter stands at the gate,
    Waiting for the butter cake.
    Come, butter, come!

    Once you get the rhythm right it’s fun to say. And there are lots of others that have edge too, a wee bit of nasty to cut the sweet.

  6. Oona You call down the rain barrel. You slide down the cellar door. Then you’ll be jolly friends for ever more.

    Think of the echoing voice in the half-filled rain barrel. Cellar doors are hard to explain. But I remember them. The sloping door lifts directly on to the stairs to the cellar. The coal man used it. Mum

  7. This is useful, thanks! Obviously it was already corrupted when I first learned it.

    I had one of these doors in my house on West Avenue (though it was flat). It was the only entrance to the cellar; there wasn’t an entrance through the house. If it had sloped, and if one had slid down it, one would have picked up some bad splinters.

  8. Cellar doors were not slanted but the structure around it was so that water would run away from the house. The song itself was to climb up the tree first then slide down so I suppose you wouldn’t need it to be slanted if it were propped on a tree. Either way when I was a child I my mother told me that a rain barrel cut in half would make the form of a slide and the cellar door was the landing to the slide (which would have been flat). I always pictured a tree house in there somewhere.

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