Hidden Histories of 3 Popular Nursery Rhymes

Humpty Dumpty

Though written for children, nursery rhymes often conceal references to historical events. Here are the hidden stories behind three popular nursery rhymes.

Humpty Dumpty

This classic nursery rhyme is also a history lesson in the English Civil War. Humpty Dumpty was not originally an egg, as immortalized by John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass published in 1871. Rather, the name referred to a cannon used by the army of Charles I in 1648 to deter the opposing army of Parliamentarians. In fact, there are two preceding verses, now mostly forgotten, that name the expert gunner, One-Eyed Thompson, and the cannon, Humpty Dumpty. The cannon was mounted on a church tower and effectively defended the town of Colchester for nearly three months. Eventually, however, the church tower was knocked down and the cannon tumbled into the marsh below, never to be found. Thus all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty together again.

London Bridge Is Falling Down

The original London Bridge was built by the Romans, though has since been replaced numerous times. This bridge, as the song details, fell down. In fact, it fell down frequently due to disrepair, a far more mundane explanation than the widely posited reason for its collapse, invasion by Viking armies. The earliest citation of the lyrics date to 1744 in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, but a previous version in Henry Carey’s Namby Pamby records the line as “London Bridge is broken down.”

Ring Around the Rosie

Many have interpreted this rhyme as referring to the bubonic plague, which swept through England at the turn of the 15th century and again in the 17th century. This interpretation correlates the rosie rings with the red circular rashes that were symptoms of the plague, and the pockets full of posies with an herbal treatment to deter the terrible ailment. However, folklorists and historical linguists take issue with this interpretation because the rhyme did not appear in print until the late 1800s, hundreds of years after the plague. Also, there is no known reference tying roses to symptoms of the plague in historical texts of the time. This dark interpretation appears to be a revisionist history of a silly children’s rhyme.

What other nursery rhymes are you curious about? Have you heard any unusual origin stories of them?

Wednesday Winner: Pulchritudinous

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7 people submitted pulchritudinous! Here are some of our favorite reasons for choosing this word:

Charlinise said she chose this word because “It’s such a beautiful and sophisticated word. Plus ‘beautiful’ is too common.”

Megan W. said she chose this word because “It is a big word for beautiful and sounds nothing like beautiful; yet, it is a beautiful word.”

Thank you to everyone who submitted this word:

Charlinise, West Orange, New Jersey
Lola H., Penshurst, Australia
Jean S., Arcadia, California
Kaitlynn B., Canada
Megan W., Menifee, California
Hector R., New York, New York
Piyush P., Patna, India

Submit your favorite word here and it could be chosen as one of our Word of the Day selections!

Head of the Class: A College Slang Cheat Sheet

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To help kick off the new academic year, we asked college students who use Dictionary.com to share slang they’ve heard around campus. We received more than 2200 responses in only a few days. Notable themes we noticed include the supernatural, food, and making out. We’ve highlighted our favorite responses below. Are you familiar with the following terms? What other slang terms have you come across in the context of collegiate life?

An Easy Course

When it comes to easy courses, college students have no shortage of creative expressions. From birds to food to basket weaving to animated characters, we thoroughly enjoyed reading about how college students refer to easy courses these days.

Bird Course: A bird course or a birdy course is a class that is so easy that you can “sing your way through it,” according to Leesha R. at the University of Trinidad and Tobago. Katrina L. at the University of the Pacific says students call these classes bird courses “because you fly right through” them.

Netflixer: Is there a term to describe a “class so easy, most people watch Netflix during it”? CL of Bridgewater College thinks so. We’re going to give CL the benefit of the doubt and assume that Netflixing is a hypothetical concept, and that no student has ever actually done this.

Snoozer/Sleeper: As with Netflixer, we’re going to hope this term is hypothetical and that the students who submitted this answer would never actually sleep in class. The term sleeper can also refer to a spy, as in sleeper agent. That particular use has been around since the 1950s.

college slang piece of cakeCakewalk: We also found that many students gravitated toward food-related expressions to describe an easy course. In this category people responded with cakewalk/piece of cake, cheese class, gravy, peanuts, and butter. Cakewalk caught our eye; originally cakewalk referred to a dance competition in which the couple with the most intricate or eccentric steps received a cake as a prize. This term first arose in the 1860s and is of black American origin.

Underwater Basket Weaving: One answer that came up several times was underwater basket weaving. This term has been around for a while, since the mid-1900s. It refers to an easy or useless college course. Other variations of this term were basket weaving 101 and underwater fire prevention.

Mickey Mouse: In the UK, sometimes students call an easy course a Mickey Mouse course. We wonder how Minnie Mouse would feel about this.

Buldge: Bludge or a bludge subject is commonly used among our Australian respondents to refer to an class that requires no work. Callum K. at the Australian Institute of Music gave us an example of how students use this term in a sentence: “That class is a bludge.”


Late-night Studying

Because college students tend to keep odd hours, it’s no surprise that they have many words in their lexicon referring to late-night studying. The following responses evoked nocturnal monsters and Kanye West.

All-nighter: The most popular responses, by far, were variations of pulling an all-nighter. Daniel F. at the University of Queensland added that while all-nighters usually refer to studying, it can be applied to anything.

Marathoning: Some students called this study habit a marathon or marathoning, a term that can also apply to the binge-watching of television shows. Paige S. at the University of Mississippi says: “‘Studying’ all night is just busy being distracted when you should be studying.”

Zombies: Another group of responses pointed to nocturnal monsters. Zombie, zombify, and zombie hours, all came up in the context of all-nighters.

college slang vampireVampires: Several variations on these nocturnal, exsanguinating creatures, including vamping, vampin’, vamp’d up, and vamp, came up in the survey. In this context, vamp is short for vampire, but vamp has be used to refer to many different things over the years, including the front part of a boot, a seductive woman who uses her sensuality to exploit men, and a volunteer fireman. In the context of studying, however, the students use vamp to refer to the fact that vampires sleep during the day and do their work at night. Several students suggested that they use these terms describing creatures of the night because they look undead the morning after pulling an all-nighter.

Going HAM/HAM session: A few students opted for the explicit acronym popularized by Kanye West and Jay-Z in the 2011 song “H•A•M.” In the academic context, going ham means: “no sleep at all, just studying hard and giving it your all to stay awake,” according to Martay E. at Dickinson State University.


Head of the Class: A College Slang Cheat SheetA Hard Test

Sometimes test results can feel like a matter of life and death. Our users submitted some pretty grim terms they use to describe tests that leave them feeling less than confident. Alex C. over at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis calls a hard test a GPA killer or a bloodbath. A hard test, according to Iris B. at Queen Margaret University, is called a death trap. Many students called a difficult test a bomb, which also happens to be a term students use to describe a wild party. This goes to prove that in realm of college slang, context is king.

Wild Cards

We asked one open-ended question in our college slang survey, which unearthed some of our favorite responses, including a few fun acronyms and a new use of the verb to have.

NCMO: This acronym meaning “noncommittal make-out” was submitted by several students who attend Brigham Young University. It seems that this acronym is, at least sometimes, pronounced aloud, as some students spell it NiCMO or nicmo. Have you seen this term outside of BYU?

college slang cupcakeCupcaking: Ziris S. at North Carolina A&T State University described cupcaking as “when two people are caught talking or flirting with each other.” This seems appropriate as cupcakes are undoubtedly the most flirtatious baked good.

Traying: Students in colder climates often refer to “sledding down a snow-covered hill on a dining hall trays” as traying, according to Florence W. of Carleton College.

NARP: Another term that came up in our survey is NARP, an acronym meaning “non-athletic regular person.” A.R. from Emory University further defines a NARP as “someone who doesn’t play a varsity sport.” Sorry, intramural kickballers, you’re all NARPs. All of you.

Soil Mate: Perhaps our favorite response came from Alec M. at Michigan State University. He explained many slang terms used within the food horticulture program. He writes: “On Valentine’s Day, we had an event at the Student Organic Farm called ‘Weed Dating’ where you would weed a bed of veggies across from a new person, and you would rotate every couple of minutes. The purpose was to find your ‘soil mate.’ There are a truly surprising number of suggestive horticultural terms.” Sounds like horticultural students have all the fun.

The Dungeon: Kris C. at Georgia Institute of Technology wrote to us about a basement computer cluster for ChemE students on campus colloquially known by students the Dungeon: “It has no windows. Students often end up there for entire days and don’t realize it’s morning again until they go outside.” Sounds pretty intense.

Having: Michael S. at the University of Minnesota Duluth told us about a new use of the verb to have: “‘Having’ is a term most commonly used when describing the consumption of a good or service (i.e. We really had it last night at that party.)”

slang graphic

Origin Story: Why Do We Call Them “Emmys”?

TV

Many viewers know the names and faces of the actors and actresses that walk the red carpet at the Emmy Awards, but few are familiar with the story behind the true star of the show: Emmy. Where does this popular awards show get its name?

The word Emmy refers to the statuette that’s handed out during the awards ceremony. It was named after a camera tube used in television called an image orthicon, known to those in the industry as Immy. After the members of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences settled on the design of the statuette—a winged woman holding an atom, symbolism intended to convey the uplifting of the art and science of television—they modified Immy to the more overtly feminine Emmy.

Another TV tube that shaped the way we talk about the small screen was the cathode ray tube, a vacuum tube inside early television sets that transmitted electrons onto a fluorescent screen. It didn’t take long after its invention for television to begin to be referred to as the tube; out of that emerged the more pejorative boob tube, suggesting that television programming is foolish, induces foolishness, or is watched by foolish people.

What TV shows and performances are you rooting for this award season?

See also:
What’s a Whip? House of Cards Lexicon
An Exploration of the Word “Binge-watch”
Breaking Bad? Word Stories Behind Four Popular TV Shows

Word Fact: What Is the Difference Between i.e. and e.g.?

ie_eg

They may be small, but their power to befuddle writers and speakers of the English language is mighty: what’s the difference between i.e. and e.g.? And what are the correct uses of these commonly confused abbreviations?

The term i.e. is a shortening of the Latin expression id est, which translates to “that is.” It is used to introduce a rephrasing or elaboration on something that has already been stated: “I like citrus fruits, i.e., the juicy, edible fruits with leathery, aromatic rinds of any of numerous tropical, usually thorny shrubs or trees of the genus Citrus.” In this example, i.e. introduces an elaboration on citrus fruits.

The term e.g. is an abbreviation of the Latin expression exempli gratia, meaning “for the sake of example” or more colloquially, “for example.” It follows that this term is used to introduce examples of something that has already been stated: “I like citrus fruits, e.g., oranges, lemons, and limes.”

One easy way to remember the difference between these two is by employing a simple mnemonic device: think of the i at the beginning of i.e. as standing for the first word in the phrase “in other words,” indicating that the clause that follows will rephrase or explain what precedes the term.  E.g. is a little more straightforward since e stands for exempli meaning “example.” To ensure your mastery over these terms is not tarnished by misplaced punctuation, remember that in formal writing, e.g. and i.e. are often set off in parentheses and followed by a comma; in less formal writing, it is standard to place a comma before and after these terms.

News & Notes: Welcome to Our New Redesign!

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We’re excited to announce the most significant redesign of our definition pages in Dictionary.com’s 19-year history. To help you find what you need quickly and easily, we’ve streamlined the pages and elevated the word features you love. We’ve also introduced exciting new items that bring words to life in innovative ways. Here’s a look at what’s new:

  • For deeper comprehension of the terms you’re looking up, we’ve moved features that provide context and usage information to more prominent placements on the page: example sentences now show up below the definitions that they illustrate, and the new navigation bar beneath your headword allows easy access to synonyms, example sentences, and word origin.
  • To make it easier to save, share, cite, and translate the words you search, we’ve added a hovering toolbar that scrolls with you as you peruse the page. We receive many inquiries from researchers, students, entrepreneurs, and authors about the proper way to cite our words. Our “cite” button makes documenting your research easier by displaying proper citation formats for your word for MLA, Chicago Manual of Style, AMA, IEEE, and BibTe.

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  • Our brand-new word origin maps provide visualizations of where in the world words come from. English has been called a vacuum cleaner of a language because it picks up words from everywhere around the world. The new maps show words’ journeys en route to English. “Giraffe,” for instance, may have originated in Persian, but it passed through Arabic, Italian, and French before entering English in 1585.

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  • To give you an idea of how the word you’re looking up stacks against other words in the English language, we’ve added our proprietary difficulty index to every definition page. This feature ranks words based on their complexity and frequency of use.
  • Love Scrabble and Words with Friends? Located in the right column, our new Scrabble and Words With Friends tiles tell you how many points you can get for the word you’ve looked up, so that you can make sure that you’re always on top of your game.

Here’s some early feedback from our visitors:

“Loving the new site design guys, loads faster than ever!” –Omar C. via Facebook

“I just learned that dictionary.com provides you with both the scrabble and Words with Friends base score value when you look up a word” –Laura Creecy via Twitter

We look forward to hearing what you think! Check out the new look and feel of our pages and discover all the new features we have to offer. Your feedback is valuable to us, so drop us a line here.

Word Fact: What’s The Origin of Pizza?

pizza, chalkboard

The word pizza is Italian for pie, but how that word wound up in Italian boggles etymologists. It may have come from the Latin pix meaning “pitch” or Greek pitta, but others say that it originated in a Langobardic word bizzo meaning “bite.”

Where did the dish itself emerge? The common belief is that Italians invented pizza, but a baked bread with toppings has many other precursors in other cuisines. Italy’s version of the dish, especially from Naples, is the one we are most familiar with, though pissaladière from Provence, coca from Catalan, and lahma bi ajeen from the Middle East all bear a remarkable resemblance to pizza.

Supposedly, this archetypal pizza, an open-faced pie slathered in tomato sauce and mozzarella, was ushered in by the baker Raffaele Esposito in Naples. In 1889, he made a patriotic pie topped with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes, ingredients the colors of the Italian flag, in honor of King Umberto and Queen Margherita’s visit. It is rumored the Queen enjoyed the pie, and thus, it became known as a Margherita.

In the US, Italian immigrants sold pizza in their stores, and the first pizzeria was opened in 1905 by Gennaro Lombardi at 53 1/3 Spring Street in New York City, but pizza did not truly not catch on stateside until World War II. Stationed in Italy, many American and European soldiers tasted pizza, and brought an appetite for this now-ubiquitous dish home with them.

Where’s your favorite slice from?

Welcome to News & Notes!

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Welcome to News & Notes, our new blog to bring you the latest product updates and announcements at Dictionary.com! Since 1995, Dictionary.com has been bringing words to life for people all over the world, whether they want to increase their vocabulary, learn a new language, check their spelling, or hear how a word is pronounced.

We envision this blog as a place to highlight feedback from our our visitors, and to provide insight into the changes we are implementing to make our products even better. Here’s what’s new for August!

iPhone 4.6 Update
Today we released our newest Dictionary iPhone app with major improvements in speed and navigation:

Increased Speed
We are super excited to announce that our latest version is the fastest app we’ve ever built. This improvement dramatically increases the speed for searches of over 2 million terms. It’s an infrastructure overhaul and a huge innovative jump that completes searches faster than many other dictionary apps, so your curiosity and workflow won’t be interrupted with slow loading.

We’ve also improved the speed of searching in our Thesaurus, so you can browse synonyms to find the word you are looking for in less than a second.

iphonescreenshot1Improved Navigation and Functionality
When you scroll down to see more information, the header will collapse in order to increase the reading area and expands when you scroll back up. This subtle difference helps to maximize the real estate of your screen so that you can quickly take in more content.

The navigation between your definition page and the upgrade tabs has been optimized so that looking up additional content for words is a more seamless experience. Specifically, the Grammar & Tips upgrade includes a new and improved persistent browsing bar tab that clearly indicates when a helpful tip is available on the words you are searching. You can now easily check for common syntax errors or other grammatical tips and tricks with one-tap access the next time you’re looking up a word, writing a cover letter, or proofreading a paper.

So give it a go and download our latest app to see the difference:

Get the iPhone 4.6 app  >> 

Let us know what you enjoy most about our newest app, and stay tuned to learn about upcoming releases and exciting developments at Dictionary.com!