Behind the meaning of ‘Humpty Dumpty’, the nursery rhyme

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It’s a refrain you learn when you’re a child:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a nice fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Can’t put Humpty back together.

But just because we are aware of something doesn’t mean we know a lot about it.

Where does this rhyme come from and what exactly does it mean? Who is Humpty Dumpty and why was he sitting on a wall to begin with?

Answering these questions is precisely the purpose of this feature. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the meaning of the song “Humpty Dumpty.”

Origins of Humpty Dumpty

The main character of the little song, or nursery rhyme, is an egg named Humpty Dumpty. The song, which has its origins in England, most likely started out as a riddle. The first recorded version of the rhyme dates back to 1797 and the song was written in 1870 in James William Elliot’s book, National nursery rhymes and children’s songs.

In the United States, the story was made popular by Broadway actor George L. Fox in the pantomime musical of the same name, which ran from 1868 to 1869 with a total of nearly 500 performances.

In 1871 Humpty Dumpty was mentioned in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book, on the other side of the mirrorwhich followed Alice in Wonderland. In this book, Humpty Dumpty was described as an egg. And author James Joyce used Humpty as a metaphor for the fall of man in the novel. Finnegans Wake.

Structure of rhymes

Today, the rhyme is delivered as a single “quatrain”, or four-line effort, which follows the AABB rhyme scheme. The melody commonly associated with the rhyme was first recorded by composer and collector of rhymes, James William Elliott.

However, the earliest version of the rhyme dates from 1797 and is very different in appearance and sound from the version and meaning best known today. These lyrics go:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a nice fall.
Eighty men and eighty more,
Couldn’t make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.

Also, in 1810, a different version was recorded with slightly different wording and meaning:

Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall,
Humpti Dumpti had a good fall;
Threescore men and threescore plus,
Unable to place Humpty dumpty as it was before.

Later, other versions appeared, although they did not have as long a lifespan, if you will, as the most well-known versions today.

The Oxford English Dictionary

According to Oxford English Dictionary, in the 17th century, the term “humpty dumpty” referred to a drink made from brandy boiled with beer. The term was also a piece of 18th century slang for a short, clumsy person.

The egg, the enigma

Originally, the rhyme may have been more of a riddle to be recited – perhaps in bars as people drank their brandy in beer.

The riddle may have had an answer to the question: what could sit on a wall and, when it falls, can’t be put back up again? Answer: an egg.

Now, however, the answer is embedded in the riddle and the verse because it is so well known.

Others have suggested that Humpty Dumpty is, in fact, a reference to King Richard III of England who was portrayed as a hunchback in several places, including Shakespeare’s play.

Others have suggested that Humpty was a reference to a cardinal or even a turtle.

More recently, Humpty has been appearing more and more in pop culture. Pop group AJR even wrote a song named after the famous egg, using it as a metaphor for keeping secrets.

Ultimate Conclusions

“Humpty Dumpty” remains one of the most famous nursery rhymes of all time. Because it’s short, it’s fun, and it’s concise, for the most part.

But also because it is mysterious. While reciting the rhyme, one cannot help but wonder: what does it mean?

Maybe it’s a metaphor for things that break. Once an egg is broken, it is not to be reconstituted, neither for you nor for the king’s men.

Or, perhaps, more than a metaphor for a broken vase, it’s a reference to a fallen king or monarch. Once a leader falls, there is no turning back.

Another theory is that a “Humpty Dumpty” was a slang term for a cannon that managed to climb to the top of a tower wall and fire down. Really, though, it could mean anything. A cannon, a king, an egg, a vase, a little person, a drink, an idea.

In the end, that’s the goal. Humpty Dumpty can be anything.

Even U.S.

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel 19th Century Illustration / Gettyimages.com

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