A Short Analysis of the ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’ Nursery Rhyme

By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Hickory dickory dock’ is one of the most recognisable nursery rhymes in the English language, but what its original purpose or meaning may have been is less clear. What does ‘Hickory dickory dock’ actually mean? Does it mean anything? First, here’s a reminder of the words:

Hickory, dickory, dock,
The mouse ran up the clock;
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory, dickory, dock.

It’s worth noting that this version is taken from Iona and Peter Opie’s The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), but some versions offer a different fourth line, and an alternative rhyme with ‘one’:

Hickory, dickory, dock,
The mouse ran up the clock;
The clock struck one,
And down he run,
Hickory, dickory, dock.

The Opies tell us that ‘Hickory dickory dock’ was ‘formerly used for counting-out’, as the nonsensical ‘hickory, dickory, dock’ would suggest. They also note that shepherds in Westmorland (now part of Cumbria, in northern England) have been using dialect numbers including Hevera, Devera, and Dick, which may have become ‘Hickory, dickory, dock’. This analysis is neat and there may be a link, but it’s difficult to prove in any decisive or conclusive way. At the very least, it’s a nice theory, though.

There’s also a Scottish link, and John Brown recalled of an occasion in 1810 when Sir Walter Scott entertained a young child named Marjorie Fleming: ‘Having made the fire cheery, he sat her down in his ample chair, and standing sheepishly before her, began to say his lesson, which happened to be – “Ziccoty, diccoty, dock, the mouse ran up the clock, the clock struck wan, down the mouse ran, ziccoty, diccoty, dock”.’

The idea that ‘Hickory dickory dock’ originated as a counting song, then, whether or not it had anything to do with those Westmorland shepherds, seems sound. Other written accounts of the rhyme from the nineteenth century suggest that children used ‘Hickory, dickory, dock’ as a way of deciding which of them would start a game: it was a way of selecting who was to go first. If this is true, ‘Hickory dickory dock’, in the last analysis, may be a distant cousin of ‘Eeny, meeny, miney, mo’. How the mouse comes into it, though, remains a mystery.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Roland Julius Drescher

    This is just like “hoppa hoppa Reiter” the children love it, they always want to play with their family.

  2. Loving these nursery rhyme posts! Keep them coming please 😊

  3. Very good. Now I’m wondering about The Three Blind Mice. Rather creepy for toddlers.

  4. Pingback: A Short Analysis of the 'Hickory Dickory Dock' Nursery Rhyme | collect magazine

  5. I’ve been loving these analyses of nursery rhymes – even if many of the origins remain inconclusive. Problem is, that once I started on this, I wandered over to read about Humpty Dumpty, Jack and Jill, Ring a Ring o Roses, Jabberwocky … Time not exactly stolen, but willingly surrendered! Wonderfully informative and intriguing as always