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A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tales from The Nursery – Part Seventeen

heydiddle

Hey Diddle Diddle

This was a very popular nursery rhyme when I was a child, full of strange imagery. The most common version of the rhyme is “Hey diddle diddle/ the cat and the fiddle/ the cow jumped over the moon/ the little dog laughed/ to see such fun/ and the dish ran away with the spoon”. The earliest recorded version was published in 1765.

It seems that hey diddle diddle could have been the name of a dance. A play written by one Thomas Preston about Cambises, king of Persia in 1569 contains the lines, “They be at hand sir with stick and fiddle/ They can play a new dance called hey-didle-didle”. And many of the components of our rhyme can be found in Alexander Montgomerie’s The Cherry and Slae of 1597, “But since you think’t an easy thing/ To mount above the moon/ of your own fiddle take a spring/ and dance when you have done”.  For those of you familiar with English folk songs there is a similarity between hey diddle diddle and hey nonny no which is a nonsense refrain in many a song.

The Cat and Fiddle was a common name for public houses, both real and fictional. One of the most famous is the rather isolated hostelry on the high point of the A537 road crossing the hills between Buxton and Macclesfield which has given its name to that stretch of road and has been a regular on traffic bulletins advising of snow and treacherous driving conditions. There was also a Cat and Fiddle pub in the Archers, the alternative to the Bull and the drinking den of choice of Snatch Foster and his cronies. It was later converted into flats but would have been my pub of choice over the rather twee Bull.

Those keen to find a historical association with any phrase claim that the Cat and Fiddle owes its origin to the corruption of Henry VIII’s first wife’s, Catherine of Aragon’s, nickname Caterine le fidele. That may well be the case but there is no reason to import her or to imply that our nursery rhyme has anything to do with Henry’s matrimonial problems. Another possible explanation is that it is a corruption of catus fidelis, a reference to the faithful household pet that is the cat

There have been some other explanations of the rhyme which seem to stretch credulity. One theory is that the rhyme lists the items and tools needed by a poor household – a cat to keep away the mice, a dog to protect the home, a cow to produce milk, a dish and spoon to eat with and a fiddle to make music with.

This is more credible than the claim that the rhyme is a reference to Egyptian mythology. The cat, dog and cow represent the Egyptian gods, Bast, Anubis and Hathor respectively. The dish and spoon are ritual implements and the fiddle is really a sistrum, a percussion instrument consisting of a handle and a U-shaped metal frame. I think this is too far-fetched to be credible.

I am content to believe that this is just a piece of nonsense verse, full of fantastic images designed to pique the imagination of our little ones. There is no need to seek any deeper meaning to it than that.

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