Sing a Song of Sixpence

Collected off of (Urban Legend Site). This urban legend turned out to be true:

A Pocket Full of Wry

Claim: The nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ originated as a coded message used to recruit crew members for pirate ships.

Status: True.

Origins: Many of us of us fondly recall the rhyming ditties we learned as children, such as “Jack Be Nimble” and “The Farmer in the Dell.” But how many of us realize that several of our most fondly-recalled nursery rhymes (e.g., “Ring Around the Rosie” and “Little Jack Horner”) were not mere nonsense songs, but actually originated as coded references to such dark events as plagues and religious persecution? Such was the case with another childhood favorite, “Sing a Song of Sixpence.”

First, link to Staff Report: Sing a song of sixpence

Second, this post quoted Snopes’ entire article, which I have deleted. Interested parties should go Snopes to read it.

Dreama, welcome to THE STRAIGHT DOPE, we’re delighted to have you here. We do try to be careful not to quote an entire article, which could be a copyright infringement, which is why I deleted the text that you had originally posted. – CKDH, Administrator

[Edited by C K Dexter Haven on 04-05-2001 at 01:13 PM]

Uh, Dreama, check out the site again. That’s one of their gag urban legends, along with “When the Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic, the film The Poseidon Adventure was being screened aboard ship.”

There are sources listed, and it appeared under Lost Legends. There were some statuses that were false. I’ll research these sources myself to get to the bottom of this one.

The section of Snopes called “Lost Legends” are all put-ons. Note their comment, “We created The Repository of Lost Legends (TRoLL for short) for those of you who don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Repeating their comment: “Don’t let the truth get in the way good story.”

“Sing a Song of Sixpence” has no relation to Blackbeard or pirates whatsover. Note the reference to “Ring around the Rosy” as related to the plague (also not true).

THE STRAIGHT DOPE must get the question about Mr Ed being a zebra, two or three times a week, partly because that’s one of Snopes joke columns. Usually there’s something at the bottom to clue you in.
[Edited by C K Dexter Haven on 04-05-2001 at 01:07 PM]

“Things Inside of Food” is much older than Sing a Song of Sixpence or Little Jack Horner. Petronius’s Satyricon, dating from the First Century, gives an outrageously funny account of Trimalchio’s Dinner, which features numerous stuffed dishes, one of which is an entire roast bull. When it is slashed open, birds fly out. See the complete text at

Does it strike anyone else as odd that the first verse references “Naughty boys” as the pie filling, with birds not showing up until the second verse?

I can see “bag”–>“poke” (archaic term for “bag”)–>“pocket”, but how has “naughty boys” morphed into “blackbirds”? The only specific mention of a blackbird is the one that attacked the maid.

Aside from the meaning of the song, the idea of actually <eating> anything that has housed 24 presumably nervous birds (or, even worse, 24 nervous boys) is truly gross…

Yeah, the naughty boys and birds thing is what confused me, too. If you read the poem the way it has been copied from the 1744 book, it seems they baked the BOYS into the pie, and when they opened the pie, all the birds NEARBY began to sing…which strikes me as a kind of surreal image. And what happened to the boys?

I also wondered of the “rye” wasn’t “rye whiskey.”

Kyomara and Balance, I too found this interesting and a bit disappointing that it wasn’t explained in more detail in the staff report. “Boys will be boys” and being baked in a pie seems a little too harsh a punishment even for the “naughty” ones.

Quoting just enough from SNOPES, at

I recommend reading the whole page I linked to at Snopes, Dreama, before you go doing any further research…


That last link should be There should be no colon at the end of the URL.


I’ve been looking into this (incidentally, the keywords “naughty boys” should probably not be used in Google when engaged in serious scholarly research), and have found a great deal of conflicting information–and no other instances on the web of the phrasing in question.

Several sources claim that the rhyme was written to taunt a very poor poet laureate named “Pye”…in 1790. Every online version I’ve found refers to blackbirds being baked in the “pye”. For various reasons (admittedly including contempt for anyone who expects me to read small, violet print on a maroon web page), I’m inclined to accept Dex’s scholarship as the more authoritative–which means that the rhyme predates the (apparently) monumentally inept Pye by some decades. Also, one could reasonably argue that the use of “pocket” (in the “baked birds” version) as opposed to “bag” suggests a version that has drifted from the original.

I’ve found claims that the “blackbirds” were church officials whose lands Henry VIII was out to seize–this may be the result of conflation with “Little Jack Horner”–and at least one denial (with no details or support) that it has anything to do with Henry VIII at all.

Does anyone have any alternative interpretation of “naughty” to offer? M-W indicates that it is derived indirectly from “no wight”–“no one” or “nothing”, but if the verse were miscopied from an earlier oral tradition, a similar word might change the meaning considerably.

(I need to get a life.)

This one’s got me puzzled

When I was at school, it was always

“Four and twenty Blackbirds baked in a pie”

for the third line. According to my impoeccable sources “Why do Cowboys wear High Heels” :rolleyes: , the story is this:

In France, in 1454, knights belonging to the oder of the Golden fleece got together for a fabulous banquet in honour of the founder of their order, Philip the Goog, Duke of Burgundy. Music was to be part of the celebration, and the knights wanted something to impress their guest, King Charles VII. They had the baker bake an enormous pie crust and when the king sat down, two dozen African musicians emerged from within.

Better than the Snopes version, I think!

But I would guess that “naughty boys” was simply period slang for the blackbirds that show up later in the poem. That is what immediately came into my mind when I read the original. I have seen references to various birds in literature of the time where they are refered to in similar ways. Sorry no cite.

I have done several period banquets for as many as 350 people and so have had occasion to research the cooking of the time. The dish described, if it is a real dish and not a metaphor, is of the class referred to as a subtlety. These could be anything from a bread baked in the form of a stag to a pastry shell with live animals, like our birds, inside. These dishes were really more for entertainment value and often not thought to be part of the meal. Many recipes describe something that would be completely inedible (like a kind of salt dough). So no one would be expected to actually eat the pastry after the birds were freed.

Not to worry–the birds were probably kept fasting for a number of hours before they were put into the pie, so they would have been emptied out. Even if you weren’t going to eat the actual pie dough, this would have meant that at least you wouldn’t have had panic-stricken birds pooping all around the Hall. It would tend to detract from the subtlety, wouldn’t it? :smiley:

Dunno about the naughty boys. Or the Africans, either, for that matter. :smiley:

And in case anybody is worried about live birds (or naughty boys) being baked in an oven–the empty pastry shell was baked first, the lid was baked separately, the birds were put in, the lid was glued down with a little more raw dough, and the whole thing was baked for a minute or two, just long enough to harden the “glue”.

(I remember reading this in a very silly children’s book when I was young.)

*Singee songee sick-a-pense
Pockee muchee lye.
Dozen two-times brackee-birdy
Cook him inee pie.

When him cut-ee topside
birdy-bobbery sing.
Himee tinkee nice-ee dishy
set-ee fore-ee king.

King-man in him countee loom
countee much-ee money.
Queeny in she parror
chow-chee bready-honey

Girly in-ee garden
hang-ee out-ee close
Here come-ee brackee-birdy
nipee offee nose!*
:slight_smile: [sub]After previewing this something made me wonder if anyone could be offended by this. Guess I’ll find out.[/sub]

*Originally posted by Duck Duck Goose *

Well you’ve got to remember that these feasts were not held at your local Bill Knapps either. There were doutless many birds, mice, rats, etc. inhabiting the hall with the feasters. Not to mention the all purpose garbage disposals of the day, the hounds. There were often many in attendance and they got everybodys table scraps. And you can bet they didn’t go scratch at the door to be let out when the time came either.

The time period we are talking about was almost unimaginably nasty by todays standards. But then we understand the relationship between animal biproducts and disease as well. I have no doubt that reverlers of that time period would have thought nothing of a few bird droppings when it came to putting on a good show.

Remember we are talking about a poem that was probably old when first published in 1744.

I learned a happier ending to this, also, but not the one quoted by Dex. The one I learned was a two-line coda that went:

And then came little Jenny Wren
Who popped the nose back on again

I always thought of the maid’s nose as being like a Lego brick . . .

My dad was of the (apparently mistaken) impression that “mother goose” was the pen-name of a political satirist in the 19th (!) century.

“Sing a song of sixpence” was supposed to be about 24 members of a criminal organization that had been captured by the police, and thanks to police interrogation (being “baked in a pie”), they were browbeaten into confessing (“singing”) who their Big Boss was. The king, of course, was the attorney general or the governor or somebody important like that. (My dad probably would have guessed that “the king” was a reference to Huey Long, except even my dad knew that Huey Long was a 20th-century figure.)

“Little Jack Horner” was eating his “Christmas pie” in a dark corner because the “pie” was a bribe secretly paid to him. He then disovered, much to his surprise, that the bribe was bigger than he had thought (he “pulled out a plum”).
Anyway, we all know that “Ring Around the Rosie” is really about Hiroshima. :wink:

I must confess… the snopes legend is one of my proudest internet moments.

Back when the snopes site was much smaller, there was a “secret” board for regulars. David (a.k.a. snopes) and Barbara had just started the TROLL section and were looking for submissions. They even suggested “something along the lines of ring around the rosey.” I have no idea why, but this rhyme never made much sense to me, so I decided to run with it. I spent all of about 10 minutes looking up the real name of Blackbeard and a couple of other easily looked up “facts” (like the name of his ship) and it just seemed to flow. The tale is complete nonsense generated in about a half hour of time. David cleaned it up a bit and made it fit their style… and the rest is history (or utter lack there of). I’m grateful that they even gave me credit as the author of one of the “sources” listed (hint: I’m a bit of a troll).

Don’t worry Dreama… you are in good company… the National Inquirer ran a blurb on this as a “strange but true” just last December.

I appologize for the extra efforts in stamping out ignorance I may have caused, but admit it… my story is much more fun than the possibility of some period fad of baking animals for the amusement of the guests.