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Origins: Little Tommy Tucker

An orphan. Not called Tommy.

Little Tommy Tucker,
Sings for his supper;
What shall he eat?
Brown bread and butter.
How will he cut it
Without any knife?
How shall he marry
Without any wife?

Tommy Tucker, since the medieval period, has been a colloquial term for an orphan, and so what seems an innocent song for young children becomes a sneering mockery of those who, in days when welfare was provided at the whim, or lack thereof, of the parish, were forced to beg (or perform) for food and charity.

A four-line version of Little Tommy Tucker appears in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book in 1744, with the version we know today first appearing in 1765 in Mother Goose’s Melody.

The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms credits Little Tommy Tucker as the source of the proverb to sing for your supper, however, it also suggests that the rhyme did not first appear until 1827, so its veracity is questionable.

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