Behind the Meaning of the Joyous Nursery Rhyme, “Pop! Goes the Weasel”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Throughout the course of history, human beings have penned any number of popular nursery rhymes, from “Jack and Jill” to “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

But perhaps none are as fun as “Pop! Goes the Weasel.”

Let’s dive in to discover the meaning.

Origins

“Pop! Goes the Weasel” is a traditional English-language nursery rhyme and singing game. It’s become so popular and stood the test of time when it comes to the enjoyment of young children, that the melody is often used in Jack-in-the-box toys to this day.

While there are many different versions of the rhyme today, in England, where the song originated, most understand the basic verse to be:

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

(Tuppenny rice is cheap starch and treacle is a cheap sweetener.)

Sometimes a second and third verse is added to the tune:

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

Early Instances Of The Rhyme

According to lore, a boat named “Pop Goes The Weasel” was in competition in the Durham Regatta (in North England) in June 1852. But it was later, in December of that same year, that the song, “Pop Goes The Weasel,” first came into prominence as a dance and common tune.

On December 24, 1852, advertisements for dance lessons for “Pop Goes The Weasel” began, well, popping up. They were described as a “highly fashionable Dance, recently introduced at her Majesty’s and the Nobility’s private soirees”

This leads some scholars to believe that the melody for the tune came first and then the lyrics.

A piece of sheet music published in 1853 contains no words other than “Pop Goes the Weasel” and gives a description of the associated steps:

FIGURES: Form in Two Lines – Top Couple Ballaneez, Four Bars – then Gallop down inside and back, Four Bars – take the next Lady, Hands Round Four Bars – then Two Bars back and (while all Sing Pop goes the Weasel) pass her under your arms to her Place – Repeat with the lady’s Partner then Gallop down the inside and back, Four Bars – and down outside to the other end of the line, Four Bars, which finishes the Figure – The next couple follows, &c. &c.

That dance, as happens, became very popular and was featured on stage and in dance halls.

The song is also mentioned in November 1855 in a Church of England pamphlet where it is described as a universally popular song played in the streets on barrel organs, but with “senseless lyrics” and, therefore, the use of alternative, more wholesome words is suggested.

Furthermore, even before that, a piece of sheet music, copyrighted in Baltimore in 1846, advertises “Pop Goes the Weasel, sung by Mr. Chapman,” written by “Raymond,” as among the “Ballads” available for sale from the same publisher. Though there is some controversy when it comes to this work, a copy of that sheet music available online at Johns Hopkins University indicated that it dates from significantly later (1856), which makes more sense given the above information.

More Lyrics

The below lyrics were printed in Boston in 1858:

All around the cobbler’s house,
The monkey chased the people.
And after them in double haste,
Pop! goes the weasel.

In addition, in her autobiographical novel, which was published in 1932, American author Laura Ingall’s Wilder remembered her father singing the below lyrics as early as 1873:

All around the cobbler’s bench,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The preacher kissed the cobbler’s wife—
Pop! goes the weasel!


A penny for a spool of thread,
Another for a needle,
That’s the way the money goes—
Pop! Goes the weasel!

Later, in 1901 in New York, the opening lines were known as:

All around the chicken coop,
The possum chased the weasel.

Even later, the most common version, which wasn’t recorded until 1914, is as follows:

All around the cobbler’s bench,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey stopped to pull up his sock, (or The monkey stopped to scratch his nose) (or The monkey fell down, and oh what a sound)
Pop! goes the weasel.


Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
Mix it up and make it nice,
Pop! goes the weasel.

More Recent Adaptation

By the mid-20th century, the standard lyrics known in the United States replaced the “cobbler’s bench” with a “mulberry bush,” and they are:

All around the mulberry bush
The monkey chased the weasel
The monkey thought it was all in good fun
Pop! goes the weasel.


A penny for a spool of thread
A penny for a needle
That’s the way the money goes
Pop! goes the weasel.

That U.S. version has since been expanded upon (as these things are):

Around and round the cobbler’s bench
The monkey chased the weasel;
The monkey thought ’twas all in good fun,
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.


A penny for a spool of thread,
A penny for a needle—
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.


Jimmy’s got the whooping cough
And Timmy’s got the measles.
That’s the way the story goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.


I’ve no time to wait and sigh,
No patience to wait ’til by and by.
Kiss me quick, I’m off, goodbye!
Pop! goes the weasel.

Okay, Okay. But What Does All This Really Mean?

The key to understanding what the fun song means—and, boy, isn’t that POP! just a blast?—is the word “weasel.”

In today’s singing, it’s often thought that the “weasel” is just that, the long, squirrels animal. But there’s much more than that to this story.

In the past, people thought the term meant a tailor’s flat iron, a dead animal, a hatter’s tool, and a spinner’s measuring tool.

(Before we get deeper into the “weasel,” the “Eagle” mentioned in some renditions is a reference to The Eagle Tavern in the U.K., which still exists today. The public house even now bears a plaque with the nursery rhyme and the watering hole’s history.)

The Weasel

Have you ever heard the term “when it rains, it pours”? Well, that is the likely meaning to “Pop! Goes the Weasel.” Let us explain.

A spinner’s weasel consists of a wheel that is revolved by the spinner to measure off thread or yarn after it has been produced on the spinning wheel. The weasel is usually built so that the circumference is six feet so that 40 revolutions produce 80 yards of yarn. It has wooden gears inside and a cam, designed to cause a popping sound after the 40th revolution, indicating to the spinner that the work or measurement is done.

But in this case, the “popping” is likely not a good thing. If we read back to the verses, so many bad things are going on. Someone is sick, money has to be spent on cheap food, and the like. So, with all these tasks done, what happens next? The wheel breaks! POP!

Or, if you want to be more generous, the reading could indicate that in order to afford all these things in life—food, medicine—one needs work, work, work. Get to spinning! Pop! Pop! Pop!

The “monkey” referenced is often thought of as money—as in, “monkey on your back.” Therefore, the job of making money is “chasing” you—so, you have to work! And even when you do, things can still go wrong. Pop! Pop! Pop!

Final Thoughts

Because the tune is so fun, the meaning becomes secondary. The melody and rhythm do so much work, which culminates in the POP! that the meaning becomes less and less important.

But if you look closer, as with the case of all these lasting nursery rhymes, there are many important, socially-minded meanings to find.

(Photo by Sheridan Libraries/Levy/Gado/Getty Images)

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