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Pop goes the weasel

Q From Nigel Neve in the UK: Having a little rug rat, I am now at that stage where I find myself revising my knowledge of nursery rhymes. The one at the top of my mind currently is Pop Goes the Weasel. Most people remember the first two verses but there are three more. Can you help explain them?

A This is one version of the rhyme:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.

Up and down the City road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.

Every night when I go out
the monkey’s on the table.
Take a stick and knock it off
Pop goes the weasel.

A penny for a ball of thread
Another for a needle,
That’s the way the money goes,
pop goes the weasel.

All around the cobblers bench
the monkey chased the people;
The donkey thought ’twas all in fun,
pop goes the weasel.

Before anybody rushes to put fingers to keyboard, let me say that this is by no means the only version of the lyric. There are several others, especially from the United States. But this is the usual British version, a famous catchy rhyme (or at least, as you say, the first two verses are).

The earliest reference I can find to music with this name actually comes from the United States, from sheet music entitled “Pop goes the Weasel for Fun and Frolic”, published in 1850 by Messrs Miller and Beacham of Baltimore. Another from three years later refers to “the latest English dance” and also “an old English Dance lately revived”, so it seems to have been imported from Britain. None of these early versions had any lyrics apart from a repeated “Pop goes the weasel”, the catch line of the dance, which was sung or shouted by the dancers as one pair of them darted under the arms of the others. Several references in books and magazines suggest that the tune soon became extremely well known, and that pop goes the weasel became a catchphrase, as it later did in Britain. There have been suggestions that the phrase was intended to be ribald or erotic, though the explanations I’ve seen are somewhat fanciful.

Following first publication of this article, David Joyce wrote that: “The tune is a version of that used for the country dance, The Haymakers, which has the same form as Strip the Willow, and Bab at the Bowster (a couple hold hands, forming a bridge, which the other couples have to pass under). The tune was published in Gow’s Repository, issued in four volumes between 1799 and 1820. Thus the tune was around at least half a century before the American publication of Pop Goes The Weasel, but is certainly very much older. (It is similar to the tune used for Humpty Dumpty, and not far removed from Lilliebulero and Rock A-bye Baby, all jigs traceable back to the seventeenth century.)”

The first British mention of the phrase pop goes the weasel dates from an advertisement by Boosey and Sons of 1854 which described “the new country dance ‘Pop goes the weasel’, introduced by her Majesty Queen Victoria” (a puff to be taken with a large pinch of salt, we may assume). It would seem from the dates that the title was taken from the American publication of 1850.

Talking of Queen Victoria, I found these words attached to the tune in the March 1860 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger of Richmond, Virginia:

Queen Victoria’s very sick,
Prince Albert’s got the measles.
The children have the whooping cough,
And pop! Goes the weasel.

Her Majesty would not have been amused.

Your version was a British music-hall song of the latter part of the Victorian period (quite when I haven’t been able to discover); it is highly probable that the words were composed to the tune of the earlier dance because everyone on both sides of the Atlantic seems to have the same one, even if the words are different.

Some of the references are now quite opaque, but we can take a fair shot at a few. In the second verse, the City Road was — still is — a well-known street in London, more than a mile long. The Eagle was a famous public house and music hall, which lay near the east end of the road on the corner of Shepherdess Walk; this had started its life as a tea-garden, but was turned into a music hall in 1825 (one of the very first); it ended its days as a Salvation Army centre and was pulled down in 1901. However, it was replaced by another pub, which still exists under the same name.

The City Road had a pawnbroker’s shop near its west end and to pop was a well-known phrase at the time for pawning something. So the second verse says that visiting the Eagle causes one’s money to vanish, necessitating a trip up the City Road to Uncle to raise some cash. But what was the weasel that was being pawned? Nobody is sure. Some suggest it was a domestic or tailor’s flat-iron, a small item easy to carry. My own guess is that it’s rhyming slang: weasel and stoat = coat. Either way, it seems to have been a punning reinterpretation of the catch line from the older dance.

The first verse just refers to a couple of domestic food items; the fourth to sewing or tailors’ requisites. The third introduces the monkey, one sense of that word being a nineteenth-century term for a drinking vessel in a public house, which makes sense in context. (It may derive from an older phrase, to suck the monkey, to drink from a bottle, which was also used by dock workers in London for illicitly drinking brandy from a cask by inserting a straw through the bung.) A stick was a shot of spirits, such as rum or brandy; to knock it off was to knock it back, or drink it. (There have been many other slang meanings of monkey, some extremely rude, of which the most famous is perhaps that for £500 or $500; from context, this is unlikely to be the meaning meant!)

The reference to the monkey in the fifth verse stumps me; in this case it seems to be a real beast. It could be one belonging to an organ-grinder, an itinerant musician who played a small portable organ, of whom there were many at this period. But I suspect there are topical or slang references in there that are now lost.

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Page created 10 Jun 2000; Last updated 04 Jun 2004