Behind the Tongue-Twisting Nursery Rhyme “Peter Piper”

There are many functions for nursery rhymes. Some lull us to sleep. Some entertain. Some tell stories and elucidate truths about the world that human beings need to know. Others teach us to speak well and take our time. An example of the latter, of course, is the tongue-twister, “Peter Piper.”

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Like other works, including the popular rhyme, “She Sells Seashells,” the nursery rhyme, “Peter Piper” helps people with diction and articulation. All while providing a nice, tight, humorous narrative—the sugar to get the bitter pill of pronunciation work down.

[RELATED: Behind the Hard Working Nursery Rhyme “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”]

But what is the history of the rhyme, when did it start entering popular culture and is there anything more to the meaning of it than just a linguistic exercise? And what does Run DMC have to do with it? Let’s dive in here below.

Nonsense Wordplay

Before video games and pro sports, people had to keep themselves entertained. And one way they did that was with riddles and wordplay. Case in point: “Peter Piper.”

Not only is it amusing to recite, but multiple people can turn it into a game by seeing who could spit out the verses the fastest and with the fewest amount of errors. And by doing this, they also improve diction. For as many psychologists will tell you, play is a way to improve oneself when you don’t even realize you’re doing it. So, they recite,

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickledpeppers,
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

Or, the more common version today:

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
How many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick
if he picked a peck of pickled peppers?

(For those who don’t know, a “peck” in this case is a unit of measurement, or two dry gallons.)

The Origins

The first recorded version of the tongue-twister comes from the 1813 work, Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation by John Harris. Though, as with most traditional nursery rhymes, the words themselves likely came about earlier than they were recorded to history.

The London-based Harris wrote his work to not just feature Peter Piper but to include one tongue-twister for each letter of the alphabet. Peter, of course, was for P.

In the wake of the rhyme’s popularity, some researchers have pointed to the French botanist Pierre Poivre (or Peter Pepper, in English) as the rhyme’s subject. But that could just be (and likely is) a coincidence, too.

Run DMC

In 1986, classic rap group Run DMC released their album, Raising Hell. On the LP was the opening song, “Peter Piper,” which cites the pepper-picking prodigy along with several other nursery rhyme characters, including Humpty Dumpty. You know you’re something when one of the greatest rap acts in history call out your name. (See the song below.)

Final Thoughts

While “Peter Piper” doesn’t necessarily have some great lesson baked into its meaning, what it does allow people to do is compete and push their limits. And perhaps that’s precisely the point. Not only are we wondering about Peter Piper’s prowess at picking pickled peppers, but in so doing, we are pushing ourselves to pronounce the protagonist’s prose precisely, so as to impress. It’s perfection!

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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