Behind the Classic Perseverant Nursery Rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock”

Every time the clock strikes a new hour, it can feel like quitting time. But as the little engine that could and the mouse in “Hicky Dickoy Dock” teaches us, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

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Let’s dive into the classic nursery rhyme.

The Meaning

At its core, the nursery rhyme is about fear and perseverance.

But as with all nursery rhymes and lullabies that stand the test of time, there are multiple meanings afoot. The story in the rhyme—yes, that thing that keeps our attention and includes a beginning, middle, and an end, along with some heightened, accessible drama—is about a little mouse climbing up a big clock.

How did the mouse get there? Why does it want to go up the clock? Where is the clock, in whose home? These queries race through our minds just as they do the minds of children. The thought exercises are fun and the fact that we get to create the context around the story is especially enjoyable.

All this is happening while children learn to count as well as tell time. That is the pill that is wrapped in the narrative sugar coating. While the children repeat the act of the mouse going up and down the clock, the number of chimes increases.

In fact, the title of the rhyme is thought to come from the old British linguistic dialect, Cumbric, in which the numbers 8, 9, and 10 are written Hevera, Devera, and Dick. From those three may come Hickory, Dickory, Dock.

The Clock and Cathedral Cats

In the town of Exeter in England there is the ornate Exeter Cathedral. That building is home to the famed Exeter Cathedral astronomical clock, which was made in the 1400s and displays the hour of the day, the day of the lunar month, and the phase of the moon. It’s an intricate and gilded invention. And it’s also protected by a secret round hole for, as legend has it, the cathedral cat to use in order to keep the delicate clock free of mice.

Everything valuable needs a guard, after all. And it’s this clock that scholars (like Richard Surman in his 2004 book Cathedral Cats) believe “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” is likely based on.

The Words, Themselves

Not only are the words fun to imagine and say, but when sung they rise and fall in melody like the most up the clock, as you can see below in the video clip.

The earliest version of the rhyme on record comes from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, which was published in London circa 1744. The opening line of that one reads, “Hickere, Dickere Dock.” A version of Mother Goose’s Melody from 1765 begins, “Dickery, Dickery Dock.”

Today, the verse is most commonly sung,

Hickory dickory dock.
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory dickory dock.

Hickory dickory dock.
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck two,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory dickory dock.

Final Thoughts

There is so much happening at once in a successful, memorable nursery rhyme. From multiple meanings and uses to certain sonic qualities and rhymes and characters. But in the end, the very mouthful that is “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” is undeniable. It puts you into childhood instantly. Into that mode where stories and story time is paramount. Like time itself, which the rhyme is all about, it’s everlasting.

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