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Origins: Higgledy-Piggledy

Cock-a-doodle-do.

Higgledy-piggledy, my black hen
She lays eggs for gentlemen,
Sometimes nine and sometimes ten,
Higgledy- piggledy, my black hen.

Also known with the following lyric:

Higgledy piggledy, my black hen
She lays eggs for gentlemen,
Sometimes nine and sometimes ten;
Gentlemen come every day
To see what my black hen has laid.

Albert Jack, whose book Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Ryhmes is accurate as often as it is not, claims the rhyme is the narration of a brothel keeper or procuress, advertising the services of her girls.  Jack  notes the similarity to a more overtly lascivious rhyme:

Little Blue Betty lived in a den,
She sold good ale to gentlemen;
Gentlemen came every day,
And little Blue Betty hopped away.
She hopped upstairs to make her bed,
And she tumbled down and broke her head.

Which first appeared in Gamer Gurton’s Garland in 1810, and concerns a girl working ‘under the sign of The Golden Can’. Opie lists a number of similar examples which refer to women  providing allegorical services to “gentlemen”, so a precident is set. ‘Higgledy-Piggledy’ is the only rhyme of the set that refers to an aimal.

Latterly Ogden Nash has used the rhyme as the basis for a poem, as has Dorothy Parker, who gave her version a decidedly more political bent;

At a party where she was seated with Somerset Maugham, the author asked if she would write a poem for him. “I will if you like,” Miss Parker said, and scribbled out:

Higgledy Piggledy, my white hen;
She lays eggs for gentlemen.

“Yes, I’ve always liked those lines,” Mr. Maugham commented.

Miss Parker bestowed a cool smile and without an instant’s hesitation added:

You cannot persuade her with a gun or lariat;
To come across for the proletariat.

from Parker’s obituary in the New York Times, 1967

There are great numbers of permutations of ‘Higgledy-Piggledy’ – rhymes of a similar metre that reference trade and which begin  an assonant nonsense phrase.  They appear from the late eighteenth century onwards – even Beatrix Potter got in on the act. The version I began with seems to be the most popular, but competition is strong.

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