Tuesday, 23 May 2023

Children's Rhymes


Some time ago I was sitting in a pub garden watching a little boy of about three trying to play Aunt Sally - a game rather like skittles which is popular in our bit of Oxfordshire. He was having difficulty, but eventually succeeded in hurling the heavy wooden baton (which is used instead of a ball) down the alley at the Sally, which is a single white skittle, and knocked her down. In great delight he went running back to his family chanting, ‘Easy peazy lemon squeezy, easy peazy lemon squeezy!’ I was smiling and thinking to myself how much young children love rhyme and rhythm and word-play. Many of them, in junior school, are natural poets; you’d think it would be dead easy to make readers out of them. What happens to the simple joys of having fun with words?

Here’s a skipping or clapping rhyme my children used to chant at school. I'll show the stresses in the first few lines, but it would be a bit much to do the whole thing. Come down heavily on the italicized words and you'll get it:

My mother, your mother, lives across the street.
Eighteen, nineteen, Mulberry Street –
Every night they have a fight and this is what it sounded like:
Girls are sexy, made out of Pepsi
Boys are rotten, made out of cotton
Girls go to college to get more knowledge
Boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider
Criss, cross, apple sauce,

Chanted rapidly aloud, you can feel how infectious it is. Another one, also a clapping game, runs:          

I went to the Chinese chip-shop
To buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread,
They wrapped it up in a five pound note
And this is what they said, said, said:
My… name… is…
Elvis Presley
Girls are sexy
Sitting on the back seat
Drinking Pepsi
Had a baby
Named it Daisy
Had a twin
Put it in the bin
Wrapped it in -
Do me a favour and –

I suppose every junior school in the country is home to a similar rhyme: chanted rapidly and punctuated with a flying, staccato pattern of handclaps, it’s extremely satisfying. I've heard teachers in schools get children to clap out the rhythms of poems 'so that they can hear it' , but never anything as complicated as these handclapping games children make up for themselves. No adults are involved. What unsung, anonymous geniuses between 8 and 12 invented these rhymes and sent them spinning around the world? Nobody analyses them, construes them, sets them as text, or makes children learn them. Some of them go back centuries, constantly evolving and updating. They’re for fun. Nothing but fun.

From such ordinary backgrounds sprang the great poet without whom we would have no ballads, no fairy tales, no myths, no legends, no Bible – all of which were made up and told aloud by Anon long before they were written down and published in big thick books. It's unimaginable. We’d have no proverbs, no skipping rhymes, no riddles, no jokes. People are naturals at using colourful speech: you really and truly do not have to learn to read or write in order to express yourself. And this reminds me of a section about ‘Children’s Folklore and Game Rhymes’ in a lovely book called ‘Folklore on The American Land’ by Duncan Emrich (Little, Brown & Company, 1972). Here are some examples. A counting-out rhyme – 

            Intery, Mintery, Cutery, Corn

            Apple seed and apple thorn,

            Wire, briar, limber-lock

            Three geese in a flock,

            One flew east and one flew west,

            And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest,

            O – U – T spells out!

So that’s where the Jack Nicholson film took its name from! I'd never realised. How about this exuberant skipping rhyme from a school in Washington? 

Salome was a dancer

She danced before the king

And every time she danced

She wiggled everything.

‘Stop,’ said the king,

‘You can’t do that in here.’

‘Baloney,’ said Salome,

And kicked the chandelier. 

And another:


Grandma Moses sick in bed

Called the doctor and the doctor said

‘Grandma Moses, you ain’t sick,

All you need is a licorice stick.’


I gotta pain in my side, Oh Ah!

I gotta pain in my stomach, Oh Ah!

I gotta pain in my head,

Coz the baby said,

Roll-a-roll-a-peep! Roll-a-roll-a-peep!

Bump-te-wa-wa, bump-te-wa-wa,



Downtown baby on a roller coaster

Sweet, sweet baby on a roller coaster

Shimmy shimmy coco pop

Shimmy shimmy POP!

Shimmy shimmy coco pop

Shimmy shimmy POP!


A clapping rhyme I remember from my own schooldays went:


Have you ever ever ever in your long-legged life

Seen a long-legged sailor with a long-legged wife?

No, I’ve never never never in my long-legged life

Seen a long-legged sailor with a long-legged wife. 

The second verse figured a knock-kneed sailor and a knock-kneed wife, and the third a bow-legged sailor with a bow-legged wife, and, as Iona and Peter Opie recorded a child explaining (in ‘The Singing Game’, OUP 1985): ‘Every time you start a new bit you put your hands on your knees and then clap your hands together – that’s for “Have you” and “No I’ve”, because they are slow. Then you go quicker and clap against the other person’s right hand and your own hands again and the other person’s left hand and your own hands again, and when you say “long-legged life” you separate your arms out sideways. And when you come to “knock-kneed” and “bow-legged” you imitate those as well.’ Playing this game was a lot of fun. 

Here’s a last one, comically relevant perhaps, given the recent news that the prolific Boris is to become a father again for the 8th (or 9th?) time.


The Johnsons had a baby,

They called him Tiny Tim,

They put him in a bathtub

To see if he could swim.

He drank up all the water,

He ate up all the soap,

He tried to eat the bathtub

But it wouldn’t go down his throat.

Mummy Mummy I feel ill,

Call the doctor down the hill.

In came the doctor, in came the nurse,

In came the lady with the alligator purse,

Measles said the doctor,

Mumps said the nurse,

Toothache said the lady with the alligator purse.

Out went the doctor, out went the nurse,

Out went the lady with the alligator purse.




 Picture credits:

Child Skipping: https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/nostalgia/look-fun-games-streets-birmingham-11184178

Children playing a clapping game: Le Nomade du 21éme Siécle,Wikimedia Commons

'In came the lady with the alligator purse': from Janet and Allen Ahlberg's 'The Jolly Christmas Postman' (Heinemann, 1991)


  1. there's another version of the Cuckoo's nest one that reads even more fairy tale like--one of Jack's many adventures....

    Intery, mintery, cutery corn,
    Apple seed and apple thorn,
    Wire, brier, limber lock,
    Three geese in a flock;
    Along came Tod,
    With his long rod,
    And scared them all to Migly-wod.
    One flew east, one flew west,
    One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.—
    Make your way home, Jack.

  2. I went to a school in Germany for army (British) children when I was 5 and 6. We used to sing a rhyme:
    I’m Shirley Temple the girl with curly hair
    I’ve got two dimples and wear my hair up there
    I’m not able to do the Betsy cradle
    But I’m Shirley Temple the girl with curly hair.

    There were gestures. For ‘the Betsy cradle’ you had to make your right elbow as pointy as possible but the details are a bit vague nearly 60 years on. Of course Betsy cradle should have been Betty Grable but in the mid 60s none of us had heard of her.

    Never heard this at any other school.

    1. Lovely, the way these rhymes gradually transform.

  3. Hei Katherine,
    Long time no word. I hope you're well.

    Norse poetry had a strain called Thula (enumerations), which consisted of lists arranged metrically, possibly to aid memory or learn by rote. They resemble clapping games, although we can never know if they were used that way.

    Heimskringla.no has a compilation of these lists in ON (search for "Tillæg fra 748, 757 (B1)"), which includes lists of kings, dwarfs, the names of gods, horse names, and the most delightful one: a list of birds.

  4. My dad taught me this one:
    Butterflies have wings of gold
    Fireflies wings of flame
    Bedbugs don't have wings at all
    But they get there just the same!

    Which seems to have been conflated with two other bits of doggerel, one about peanuts:
    Peanut sittin' on the railroad track
    Its heart was all aflutter
    Train came roarin' round the bend
    Toot! Toot! Peanut butter!

    And one about drought:
    Oh! It ain't gonna rain no more, no more,
    It ain't gonna rain no more
    How in the heck can I wash my neck
    If it ain't gonna rain no more?

    He sings them all together to the same tune. I have no idea if he came up with it or heard it somewhere.
    My aunt had a quite different one, that she said my great-grandmother would sing to her; she sings it to the hymn tune Ocean Wave:
    Way out in the ocean wide
    Where the water's six inches deep
    The pollywog wags its tail
    And sings the fishes to sleep.

    Come to think of it, our family has a lot of little scraps of tune that we make up our own words to. I guess we all like wordplay.

  5. This is one of the most engaging posts I have ever come across, keep up the good work...