See saw, Marjorie Daw
Our rhyme is a curious affair and it seems that the first line has little to do with the subsequent three lines. The most common version goes, “See saw Marjorie Daw/ Jacky shall have a new master/ Jacky shall earn but a penny a day/ because he can’t work any faster”. Variants spell Marjorie as Margery and some replace Jacky with Johnny or Jack. We have seen before that Johnny or Jack has been used as a catch-all name to refer to a boy and there is no reason to suppose that this isn’t the case here.
In the literature associated with the rhyme, no one has attempted to ascribe Marjorie Daw to a real person – a relief I can tell you. The purpose of the name is that it rhymes neatly with the much more interesting words, see saw. In days of yore, Britain was heavily forested and timber became a major constituent for the building industry. Trees had to be felled and then the trunks and branches had to be sawed into the requisite lengths. The latter task was often accomplished by a pair of workers using a double-handed saw, one at each end. To be efficient it was essential that a rhythm was established and as with oarsmen a rhythmic ditty was used to achieve this.
A chant featuring see saw and used by sawyers appeared in Richard Brome’s play, the Antipodes, which was first performed in 1638, “see saw, sacke a downe”. A variant from around 1685 went, “see saw, sack a day” and a third in the 18th century had the genesis of a rhyme, “See saw sacaradown/ which is the way to London town?” Almost certainly, the see part of the formulation has no specific meaning, serving, rather, as a form of reduplication of the sense of saw, the tool. Grammarians call it a reduplicated compound, like titter-totter or teeter-totter.
See saw first appeared as a game involving going up and down on a balanced piece of wood in 1704 and was used figuratively from around 1714. It appeared as a verb in 1712 with the sense of moving up and down but it was not until around 1824 that it was used to describe the plank that was used for the game.
Lines two to four have a darker connotation. Jacky clearly is working and is on piece rate and it is doubtful that he will earn any more than a penny because of the pace at which he works. This could be a reference to the institution that all good working people dreaded, the work house. Failure to meet targets impacted your ability to buy food and to secure a moderately comfortable place to sleep at night.
Gammer Gurton’s Garland records an interesting variant of the rhyme, “See saw, Margery Daw/ sold her bed to lay on the straw; / was she not a nasty slut/ to sell her old bed to lay on the dirt?” At least this version avoids the awkward change in gender between lines one and two in the more common version. In the Scottish dialect, daw meant an untidy woman, a slut or slattern. Slut did not then have the sexual connotation that it has now and was used to describe an untidy or dirty woman. Early versions of Cinderella were entitled Cinderslut, acknowledging the protagonist’s dirty appearance from raking the ashes.
Georg Orwell cited our rhyme as a prime example of a nonsense verse and there is no reason to disagree with him.