Wednesday, February 3, 2010

the archaeology of Mother Goose

Question: How do we know that Humpty Dumpty was an egg? It says nothing about a shell in the rhyme.

4 comments:

Todd Stadler said...

Wikipedia to the rescue!

"The rhyme does not explicitly state that the subject is an egg because it was originally posed as a riddle, first published in 1810 as such:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
Threescore men and threescore more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before.

It probably exploited, for misdirection, the fact that 'humpty dumpty' was also eighteenth-century reduplicative slang for a short and clumsy person. The riddle may depend on the assumption that, whereas a clumsy person falling off a wall might not be irreparably damaged, an egg would be. The rhyme is no longer posed as a riddle, since the answer is now so well known."

No, I didn't know the answer until I looked it up, either.

Heather said...

Hooray! Mystery solved.
Now, when did the king's men enter in?

Anne said...

It's been my understanding that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon that fell off a castle (fortress? outpost??) wall and could not be put back up again. I'm not trying to contradict Todd or Wikipedia, perhaps the naming of the cannon was based on the riddle..? Anyway, I'm going to check my sources, but I think it was some powerful or important cannon that fell of the wall and they couldn't manage to get it back where it belonged. Which, I suppose, is why the kings horses and kings men were involved.

Todd Stadler said...

Wikipedia to the rescue again!

"The theory that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon used in the siege of Gloucester in 1643 during the English Civil War is often stated as fact. However, the additional 'discovered' verse which reveals this meaning was actually written as a spoof for the Oxford Magazine in 1956 by Professor David Daube."

You can read more on that at the article on Humpty Dumpty. I'm incapable of assessing the validity of these claims, of course, but see no reason to believe they're wrong.