Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Seamy and Quirky Stories Behind Favorite Nursery Rhymes

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Was Little Jack Horner a squatter? “Baa Baa Black Sheep” a bleat about taxation? What did Jack and Jill really do on that hill? Chris Roberts reveals the seamy and quirky stories behind our favorite nursery rhymes.

Nursery rhymes are rarely as innocent as they seem—there is a wealth of concealed meaning in our familiar childhood verse. More than a century after Queen Victoria decided that children were better off without the full story, London librarian Chris Roberts brings the ...

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Was Little Jack Horner a squatter? “Baa Baa Black Sheep” a bleat about taxation? What did Jack and Jill really do on that hill? Chris Roberts reveals the seamy and quirky stories behind our favorite nursery rhymes.

Nursery rhymes are rarely as innocent as they seem—there is a wealth of concealed meaning in our familiar childhood verse. More than a century after Queen Victoria decided that children were better off without the full story, London librarian Chris Roberts brings the truth to light. He traces the origins of the subtle phrases and antiquated references, revealing religious hatred, political subversion, and sexual innuendo.

Roberts reveals that when Jack, nimble and quick, jumped over a candlestick, he was reenacting a popular sport that tested whether a person was lean and healthy. Humpty Dumpty was actually a cannon mounted on the walls of a church in Colchester, blown up during the English Civil War. Few know that the cockles in “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” actually refer to cuckolds in the promiscuous court of Mary Queen of Scots. Or that “Rub-a-dub-dub, three maids in a tub” was inspired by a fairground peepshow.

A fascinating history lesson that makes astonishing connections to contemporary popular culture, Heavy Words Lightly Thrown is for Anglophiles, parents, history buffs, and anyone who has ever wondered about the origins of rhymes. The book features a glossary of slang and historical terms, and spooky silhouettes of nursery-rhyme characters to accompany the rhymes. Mother Goose will never look the same again.


“Boisterous and fascinating.”
Daily Telegraph

“Robert's entertainingly mischievous readings of these traditional songs grab symbolic readings from any available sources and stir them in a big pot.”
—Steven Poole, The Guardian

“Roberts is a lucid and funny writer — his ability to provide a historical overview as he focuses on bygone detail makes fascinating reading”
Sainsbury's Magazine

“Very meticulous with his research and doesn't try to fool you with waffle or overstatement. Fun and easily digestible wander through history. Though don't be surprised if by the end, much like Jack after he'd broken his ' crown', you feel like you've lost your innocence.”
Leeds Guide

“An irreverent romp through the received wisdom of the nursery rhymes with which we all think we are so familiar.”
Sunday Herald

“Entertaining exposé of the surprising stories behind well-known nursery rhymes revealing a seething subtext of sexual innuendo, religious hatred and political subversion.”

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Most of us think of nursery rhymes as harmless playroom banter, but Chris Roberts knows better. In Heavy Words Lightly Thrown, he delves into the surprising origins and buried meanings of traditional nursery rhymes. Did you know, for instance, that "Baa Baa Black Sheep" was a primal cry against taxation or that "See Saw, Marjorie Daw" once had ribald connotations? Roberts, who is both a librarian and a London tour guide, is an expert at combining information and entertainment.
Publishers Weekly
A librarian by night and a London tour guide by day, Roberts deploys an informal style of scholarship to dazzling effect, transforming a catalogue of familiar nursery rhymes into a treasure trove of tantalizingly slippery archaisms, hidden etymological layers, arcane associations and buried meanings. Having explained how the Victorians sanitized nursery rhymes' traditionally earthy content, Roberts attends to each ditty separately, printing obscure variants and tracing historical references, from British constitutional history to bygone pagan customs. Unlocking the secret meanings of the past, Roberts also finds plenty of refreshingly straightforward modern-day analogies for the nursery rhymes-the chanted taunts of the average British soccer fan illustrate certain rhymes' original tone and purpose. In a fluidly digressive style, he debunks accepted theories and confidently asserts his own. His reading of "Hark, Hark, the Dogs Do Bark," for example, starts out by describing Elizabethan mass vagrancy, proceeds to anatomize 17th-century anti-Dutch sentiment and the etymology of the word "beggar," and winds up with a spirited commentary on New Age travelers. Roberts's intimate knowledge of London history is perfectly suited to his discussions of "London Bridge Is Falling Down" and "Pop Goes the Weasel." As any good historian of oral culture ought, Roberts intelligently admits that many rhymes have open-ended meanings subject to multiple interpretations. This is better than history lite-it's history made delightful. (Aug. 18) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Humpty Dumpty was a cannon perched on a church wall in Colchester, England, and the cockles in "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" were actually cuckolds. These little nuggets and more appear in South London librarian Roberts's study of nursery rhymes, begun as a self-published project in England and now slated for a big push here. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
High-spirited and irreverent probe into the political, sexual and religious meanings behind nursery rhymes and childhood chants. Roberts, a British librarian and walking-tour guide who discovered that tourists relished his offbeat background tales, self-published a version of this book in 2003 in England. Then Granta published the expanded edition that-with a new preface and glossary-is the one at hand. Of the more than three dozen rhymes, only a half dozen or so-"Taffy Was a Welshman," say, or "Elsie Marley Is Grown So Fine"-will be unfamiliar to American ears, and, while Roberts's glossary does clarify British cultural references (rhyming slang, television shows, media personalities), he still assumes a general familiarity with British history. When rhymes have more than one story behind them, as many do, he attempts to sort out the various theories, keeping those with the most historical support. Thus, he reports that "Georgy Porgy" was more plausibly a satire on a gay prince regent of the 19th century than on a marquis in the 17th, and that the earliest written version of the rhyme had no George at all, but warned about the dangers of being too fat, beginning with the line "Rowley Powley, pudding and pie." Roberts also reveals the true identities and stories behind "Little Jack Horner," "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" and "Little Boy Blue," whjile "Ding Dong Bell" leads him to a discussion of cat symbolism and superstitions; in his take on "Ladybird, Ladybird," he introduces other folk beliefs about insects; and in "Goosie, Goosie, Gander"-he advises the reader that it's about prostitution ("goose" was a common term for a prostitute)-he takes the opportunity to talk about Londonbrothels. More intent on entertainment than scholarship, Roberts has nevertheless packed into his little essays a large amount of choice information and fascinating trivia about British folklore, royal misbehavior and political skullduggery. Nearly half of every chapter's opening pages are decorated with sprightly silhouettes illustrating scenes from the rhymes. Great fun-for adults.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641829369
  • Publisher: Gotham
  • Publication date: 8/18/2005
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.56 (w) x 7.86 (h) x 0.84 (d)

Meet the Author

Chris Roberts is a librarian in South London and the proprietor of F and M Walking Tours in London. He incorporates these stories into his tours, which became the inspiration for the book. Heavy Words Lightly Thrown began as a self- published project in the UK and has already begun to receive widespread publicity, including coverage in USA Today. Roberts lived in New York City for several years after earning a degree in history at Swansea University. He lived in Berlin for a while before settling in London.

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Table of Contents

Little Jack Horner a squatter? : Little Jack Horner 1
Taking divinity classes? : Jack Be Nimble 7
It's falling down : London Bridge 9
Who let then out? : hark, hark, the dogs do bark 15
Fancy a rub-a-dub, then, matey? : rub-a-dub-dub 20
Saucy geese? : goosie, goosie, gander 23
Piecing together the story : humpty-dumpty 27
Who ate all the pie? : sing a song of sixpence 30
Bloody Mary, anyone? : Mary, Mary, quite contrary 33
A short tale? : three blind mice 37
A child's guide to taxation : baa, baa, black sheep 41
So good they associated it twice : grand old Duke of York 44
Relationship rhymes : a frog he would a-wooing go 49
Disaster warning? : ladybird, ladybird 56
A swift tour of London? : oranges and lemons 60
Handbags at ten paces? : tweedledum and tweedledee 65
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