Humpty Dumpty--bringing it all together again *(long!)

Dex wrote the original report Why is Humpty Dumpty portrayed as an egg, even though eggs aren’t mentioned in the nursery rhyme? back in April, 1999. There have been many threads about this column.

I didn’t want to add a reply to just one thread, because there were questions brought up in each thread that were new and need answered. Not that I have the final answer. Just trying to add info.

Unless otherwise noted, all of my answers are based on my 1997 edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. The authors, Iona and Peter Opie, are pretty well-respected experts on nursery rhymes.

From , PapaBear asked if the answer(an egg) to the riddle was cited in the first appearance of the rhyme(supposedly 1810). The answer is no. The use of “egg” doesn’t seem to appear until Lewis Carroll. Carroll’s use of the egg would certainly indicate that the rhyme was a riddle at some point in history. Ms. Opie suggests that the riddle was so well known that it wasn’t included in much earlier books of riddles. Too common.

The Great Rupert brought up the story about a “seige engine” (during the Cromwell period) being the source of the rhyme. UNfortunately, this idea came from a spoof article written in 1956, by the Oxford Magazine. Sorry, Rupert.

In this thread Reuben Marchant suggests that it referred to Charles I. Perhaps the fake article again? Anyway, Charles I is not likely. DSYoungEsq suggests that the earlier mention of Humpty-Dumpty as a drink is what the rhyme is referring to. It could be, but I would tend to disagree. The drink reference actually only appears in print in 1798, and the first appearance of the rhyme is not actually 1810, but rather 1797. It appeared as text in something called Juvenile Amusements with the last two lines as

What do you make of the fact that part of the rhyme is in a book called Juvenile Amusements? Lends pretty good weight to a kids riddle theory and the answer being an egg rather than a glass of beer. There is also an 1803 cite with the line “Could not set Humpty Dumpty up again.”

In This thread we get the first whiff of the Tower of London guides pratter about Richard III. While I can’t tell you where the story started, it was popularized by none other than Robert Ripley(Believe it or Not) and we simply don’t believe it. Nor does any serious researcher. Dex brings up a great point in this thread, which no one was able to follow up. Ms. Opie does it stupendously.

Dex said

I won’t bore you with Ms. Opie’s cites, but suffice it to say the first was Danish, from 1820-23, by J.M.Thiele. I’ll quote the English translation for brevity. “LIttle Trille Lay on a shelf; Little Trille Thence pitch’d himself; Not all the men In our land, I ken, Can put Little Trille right again.” If you need the original, I can supply it. She then offers the same rhyme in Swedish, German, etc. All before Carroll. But she indicates they probably all go back to the English. Polycarp said

Actually, Ms. Opie touches on this. That theory has been advanced by a serious scholar who wrote the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Names saying that pet names for Humphrey were Dumphry and Dump.

The final observation is that the OED cites Humpty Dumpty first in any context from 1785, by Grose, who wrote a dictionary of words which were not always used in polite society. He said " a little humpty dumpty man or woman; a short clumsey person of either sex. " Predating that cite, Ms. Opie says "The earliest reference to Humpty Dumpty as a squat, comical little person appears(in an engraving)…sometime between 1754 and 1764. “Sir Humpty Dumpty fierce as Turk, At Captain Doodle runs his fork.”

I’m sorry if people are offended by the length, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it otherwise.

It’s okay–we understand you have no life. :smiley:

Another theory is that it’s about Cardinal Wolsey falling out of favour with Henry VIII.

Cardinal Wolsey lived at Cawood Castle (a few miles south of York) for nine months, to prepare for his enthronement at York, but was soon arrested by order of King Henry VIII on a charge of High Treason in 1530. Wolsey was reportedly quite short and dumpy, too.

Apparently he was in the habit of walking the walls of Cawood Castle, and liked to sit on the high tower wall, from where he could see the cathedral in York, looking forward to the day of his enthronement.

But Cardinal Wolsey failed to get permission from the Pope for Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn.

Wolsey was arrested by the Earl of Northumberland three days before his enthronement, and charged with high treason. Already unwell, Wolsey died three weeks later on November 29, 1530, in Leicester Abbey, on his way to face trial in London.

Enthronement? What kind of “enthronement” would Wolsey have been expecting?

Not speaking to the “Humpty-Dumpty” aspect (which strikes me as improbable), but this would be his enthronement as Archbishop of York. He had held the office on paper for 16 years, but had never actually been to York.

Just for completeness, the theory of origins in the English Civil War often refer to an alleged incident at Colchester. In this case “humpty Dumpty” is a defending cannon (for the Royalists in the city) and the Roundheads destroyed the wall (sometimes tower) where it was located.
The incident may have some truth, but the details of the story are very variable. There is no way to definitively link this to the rhyme, and even historians in Colchester are dubious about it (from the Colchester Museums site

I’ve looked through the threads linked by the OP and nobody seems to have pointed out that the French word for “a little egg” is “un p’tit oeuf”, pronounced “Umpty Duh”. From there to “Umpty Dumpty” is just a matter of completing the rhyme.

I’m clueless about French. But is that truly how the phrase is pronounced? how does “un p” turn into “ump” ?

What I forgot to offer in my OP is that the OED cites the words first from 1699, in a different context:

and a second citing from the OED:

The theory is that this probably goes back beyond the written cites. They are just nonsense rhyming words.

It’s probably just a coincidence. But to answer your question, samclem, “un p’tit” truly sounds almost exactly like “umpty”. Why? Well, the “n” is not pronounced as such in the French phrase; it is just a nasalisation of the preceding vowel. There are three nasal consonants in English: /n/, /m/ and /ng/. The difference between /n/ and /m/ is that the breath is stopped at the lips for /m/ but by the tongue against the hard palate for /n/. When the next sound is a /p/, which requires the lips to be together, the nasal sound therefore takes the form of an /m/.

Actually, I’ve just realised, “un p’tit oeuf” would be pronounced “umptyduff”, not “umptyduh”, so my point is somewhat weakened.

Yeah, hibernicus, it’s possible to find multi-lingual puns in lots of areas… especially nonsense words in one language that seem to “sound like” some phrase in another language. F’rinstance, What’s the origin of “abracadabra,” “hocus-pocus,” and “presto”?