Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about nursery rhymes and whether they are true or false.
NURSERY RHYME URBAN LEGEND: Humpty Dumpty was named after a cannon.
A lot of the fun with nursery rhymes for adults is trying to figure out the meaning behind these children’s rhymes. Since the origins of almost all of them have been lost to the ages for centuries, a “best guess” is all we really can do for most of them, and in a lot of cases, said “best guesses” really can be quite a stretch (“You see, ___ stands for _____, so when he says ____, he really means ____” – stuff like that).
One such stretch is with the famous story of Humpty Dumpty.
As the tale goes:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
Interestingly enough, it seems likely that the initial usage of the song was as a riddle. You know, sort of like the one about “Henry” being discovered in a pool of water and broken glass having drowned, and you’re supposed to figure out that Henry is a goldfish. It appears that the same was here originally, that you were supposed to figure out WHY Humpty Dumpty couldn’t be put back together – because he’s an egg, not a human!
In any event, one popular “origin” of the rhyme comes down to these alternate lyrics to the tale…
In Sixteen Hundred and Forty-Eight
When England suffered the pains of state
The Roundheads lay siege to Colchester town
Where the king’s men still fought for the crown
There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall
A gunner of deadliest aim of all
From St. Mary’s Tower his cannon he fired
Humpty-Dumpty was its name
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall…
Thus the story is that in 1648, a Royalist cannon in Colchester used during the English Civil War was perched on a wall and was knocked down, and all of the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t get “Humpty Dumpty” back together again.
The main “proof” (or should I say, the ONLY proof) for this take on the story is the above lyrics, and those lyrics were actually created in the late 1950s as a joke by Professor David Daube in Oxford Magazine.
An alternate version is that “Humpty Dumpty” was a sniper during the same battle in Colchester.
Similarly, that story lacks, well, any proof.
So I’m going with false to both.
Honestly, from the looks of the lyrics, I don’t think this is one of those nursery rhymes that is anything except a fanciful children’s rhyme.
The legend is…
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