Tales From The Nursery – Part Thirty Six


Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John

Today’s rhyme goes, “diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John,/ went to bed with his trousers on/ one shoe off, the other shoe on/diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John”. At first glance this is a rather inconsequential rhyme, describing the rather disorderly attempt by the child John to get himself to bed. Not only has he kept his trousers on but has clambered into bed wearing one of his two shoes. No doubt this is not an unfamiliar state of affairs when small children seize the initiative and try to do things for themselves.

But the key to unlocking what meaning there is to the rhyme is to understand the meaning of the word diddle. One of the many joys of being a grandparent is to watch the little one take their first tentative steps. BoJ2 is just about to start on his bipedal journey with all the bumps and scrapes that that will entail. And the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives a definition of diddle, albeit an obsolete usage, as “to walk unsteadily, as a child; to toddle = daddle”. It was certainly used in 1632 in this sense, “and when his forward strength began to bloom/ to see him diddle up and down the room”.

Somewhere along the line by the turn of the 19th century diddle had developed another meaning, to cheat or swindle. Quite how that came about is unclear but, perhaps, the tentative steps of a toddler were seen as an ersatz form of walking. In 1825 diddle was used in a context which was suggestive of wasting time and in 1879 was used to describe the act of sex. There is little doubt that the rhyme requires the original, now obsolete, meaning of diddle.

In these more politically correct times it is rather frowned upon to make explicit reference to some of the physical characteristics of a person but when the rhyme was first published, in The Newest Christmas Box of 1797, there were no such sensibilities. The OED provides us with a clue again, defining the word as “a dumpy animal or person, short and of rounded outlines”. In 1828 it was defined as “a little fat child or person, as broad as long”. Of course, babies and toddlers tend to be on the chubby side and we can perhaps view the usage in the rhyme as a term of endearment rather than pejorative.

There are variants to the rhyme. A version published in Denslow’s Mother Goose has the opening as “deedle, deedle, dumpling” and the 1916 The Real Mother Goose replaces trousers with breeches and shoes with stockings. The 1850 version of the rhyme, published in Harry’s Ladder To Learning, has breeches and shoes while a Scottish version, published in 1904 in A Book for Bairns, has trowsers and the rhyme starting, “hey diddle dumplin’”.

It has been suggested that the genesis of the rhyme came from the cry of one of the many street vendors who wandered the streets advertising their wares, “diddle, diddle, diddle dumpling”. That may be so but other than the obvious alliteration there is nothing in the sense of diddle to support such a claim. When we looked at hey diddle diddle, though, there was a suggestion that it referred to a dance. All very confusing!


Tales from The Nursery – Part Seventeen


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.