By Dr Oliver Tearle
We tend to associate nonsense verse with those great nineteenth-century practitioners, Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, forgetting that many of the best nursery rhymes are also classic examples of nonsense literature. ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’, with its bovine athletics and eloping cutlery and crockery, certainly qualifies as nonsense. What does this intriguing nursery rhyme mean, if anything? What are its origins? Iona and Peter Opie, in The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), call ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ ‘probably the best-known nonsense verse in the language’, adding, ‘a considerable amount of nonsense has been written about it.’
Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon;
The little dog laughed
To see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.
‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ may have been the rhyme referred to in Thomas Preston’s 1569 play A lamentable tragedy mixed ful of pleasant mirth, conteyning the life of Cambises King of Percia: ‘They be at hand Sir with stick and fiddle; / They can play a new dance called hey-didle-didle.’ The Opies cite this reference to a ‘dance’ named ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’. They also list a number of fanciful and far-flung theories about the origins of the rhyme, which they say can be safely dismissed. Among these origin stories are: that the figures in the rhyme refer to constellations in the night sky (cow = Taurus the bull; the dog = Canis minor); that it’s about the rising of the waters in Egypt of all things (the little dog is the Dog Star, the fiddle takes us somehow to beetles, which become scarab beetles); that it has its origins in Tudor politics involving Queen Elizabeth and lady Katherine Grey; or that ‘cat and the fiddle’ refers to Katherine of Aragon (Katherine la Fidèle), the first wife of King Henry VIII. In the last analysis, there is no conclusive evidence linking ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ to any of these.
What is slightly more credible is the theory that the rhyme has its origins in a game involving a ‘cat’ (trap-ball), played to accompanying music on the fiddle. Such a game was played at pubs, some of which bear the name ‘Cat and Fiddle’. Given that elsewhere there are suggestive links strongly associating famous nursery rhymes with dances or musical games (see ‘Ring-a-ring-a-roses’ for another example), this is the explanation we’re most tempted to accept here at Interesting Literature.
Delve into the histories of more nursery rhymes with our posts about the curious origins of Old Mother Hubbard, the true meaning of ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, and the story of Mary and her little lamb.
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.
It is so frustrating to find that most nursery rhymes can’t quite be placed into their original context. You FEEL Hey Diddle Diddle must have some story behind it. It’s not quite in the nonsense category somehow (but perhaps that’s just our familiarity with it?). One lives in hope that some very early reference to it will one day be found which clears it all up and has us all able to say “ah! so THAT’S what it was really all about!”
Oh how fun. I taught kindergarten for many years and we always did clapping things with the nursery rhymes sometimes with different rhythms and sometimes with costumes and huge cardboard cutouts (to say nothing of flannel boards and art projects). I personally enjoyed studying the origins as well. Hey Diddle Diddle was one of the first in the year. Many of my students were native Spanish speakers with little or no English. Fond memories – thanks.
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