Behind the Meaning of ‘Humpty Dumpty’, the Nursery Rhyme

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Videos by American Songwriter

It’s a refrain we learn as children:

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.

But just because we’re aware of something, doesn’t mean we know much about it.

Where did this nursery rhyme come from and what does it mean, exactly? Who is Humpty Dumpty and why was he sitting on a wall, to begin with?

Answering these questions is precisely the point of this feature. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the meaning behind the song, “Humpty Dumpty.”

Origins of Humpty Dumpty

The main character of the little song, or nursery rhyme, is an egg named Humpty Dumpty. The song, which has origins in England, most likely began as a riddle. The first recorded version of the rhyme dates back to 1797 and the song was written in 1870 in James William Elliot’s book, National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs.

In the United States, the story was made popular by the Broadway actor George L. Fox in the pantomime musical of the same name, which ran from 1868 to 1869 with a total of nearly 500 performances.

In 1871, Humpty Dumpty was referred to in Lewis Carroll’s 1871 book, Through the Looking-Glass, which was a sequel to Alice in Wonderland. In that book, Humpty Dumpty was described as an egg. And author James Joyce used Humpty as a metaphor for the fall of man in the novel Finnegans Wake.

Rhyme Structure

Today, the nursery rhyme is delivered as a single “quatrain,” or four-line effort, which follows the AABB rhyme scheme. The melody commonly associated with the rhyme was first recorded by composer and nursery rhyme collector, James William Elliott.

However, the earliest version of the rhyme comes from 1797 and looks and sounds much different compared to the more commonly known version and meaning today. Those lyrics go:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.

Further, in 1810 a different version was recorded with slightly different wording and meaning:

Humpty Dumpty sate on a wall,
Humpti Dumpti had a great fall;
Threescore men and threescore more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before.

Later, other versions popped up, though they didn’t have as long a shelf-life, if you will, as the more commonly known versions today.

The Oxford English Dictionary

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 17th century, the term “humpty dumpty” referred to a drink made of brandy boiled with ale. The term also was an 18th-century bit of slang for a short and clumsy person.

The Egg, The Riddle

Originally, the nursery rhyme may have been more of a riddle to recite—perhaps in bars as people drank their brandy in ale.

The riddle may have had an answer for the question: what might sit on a wall and, when it falls, can’t be put back together again? Answer: an egg.

Now, though, the answer is baked into the riddle and verse because it is so well known.

Others have suggested that Humpty Dumpty is, in fact, a reference to King Richard III of England who was depicted as a humpback in several places, including in Shakespeare’s play.

Others have suggested Humpty was a reference to a Cardinal or even a tortoise.

More recently, Humpty has shown up more and more in pop culture. The pop band AJR even wrote a song named after the famous egg, using him as a metaphor for keeping secrets.

Ultimate Conclusions

“Humpty Dumpty” remains one of the most famous nursery rhymes ever. Because it’s short, it’s fun and it’s concise, largely.

But also because it’s mysterious. Reciting the rhyme, one can’t help but wonder: what does this mean?

Perhaps it’s a metaphor for things breaking. Once an egg is shattered this is no putting it back together, not for you, not for the king’s men.

Or, maybe, more than a metaphor for a shattered vase, it’s a reference to a fallen king or monarch. Once a leader falls, there is no going back.

Another theory is that a “Humpty Dumpty” was a slang term for a cannon that was managed to get atop a tower wall and fire down below. Really, though, it could mean anything. A cannon, a king, an egg, a vase, a short person, a drink, an idea.

In the end, that’s the point. Humpty Dumpty can be anything.

Even us.

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel 19th Century Illustration / Gettyimages.com

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