Friday, January 15, 2016

Pop! Goes the Weasel

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
half a pound of treacle,
that's the way the money goes,
pop! goes the weasel.

Story of our lives, isn't it? We get a little ahead, and something will happen to make sure we're not ahead for long. Like the other day when the electrical box for the pump went bad, and out went several hundred dollars. Fortunately we had the money on hand, earmarked for the savings account and the next trip to Ireland. Ah me. But could have been worse, and I do love running water.

Then there's this verse:
All around the mulberry bush
the monkey chased the weasel,
the monkey stopped to pull up his socks,
pop! goes the weasel.

As I do almost every morning in winter when the days start dark and slow, I was browsing a volume of the West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia this morning and came across a lengthy section on folk dances. Included was a circle dance called "Pop Goes the Weasel". The lyrics, when you actually think about them, don't make much sense. I know that tuppence is two pennies, and that there is a British two pence coin. I know that treacle is a kind of molasses, a by-product of sugar-making. But what does "pop goes the weasel" mean? And why was the monkey chasing the weasel.

According to the article I read this morning, the term goes back to the days when people grew their own flax and made their own cloth.Once the wool or fiber was spun, it was wound onto a yarn winder, then pulled off and tied to make a skein. These yarn winders had some other, colorful names, according to one website: niddy noddy, knitty knotty, nostepine, spinners weasel, clockenhen, Ccock reel, swift, skein winder, and ball winder. And the name "spinners weasel" leads to one explanation of the nursery rhyme.

In this painting the yarn winder is on the right. By Quiringh Gerritsz. van Brekelenkam, 1653-1654.
The winder had gears inside, and a handle for turning the wheel as the yarn was wound onto it. After a certain number of turns, the winder, or "weasel",  would make a loud POP, letting the spinner know it was time to remove the skein. 
A "spinner's weasel." Photo from Wikipedia.
Is this really the explanation for the song's odd lyrics? It's inviting to believe so, but according to the website Nursery Rhymes: Lyrics, Origins, and History this is just folklore and not fact. The actual origin, they say, comes from Cockney London; weasel is slang for a coat and to pop something meant to pawn it. Possible, I suppose, but I like the spinning explanation better.

Some other variations of the rhyme as sung in West Virginia for the circle dance included:

All around the vinegar jug
the moneky chased the weasel,
the monkey thought twas all in fun,
pop! goes the weasel!

Mary's got the whooping cough,
Johnny's got the measles,
that's the way the money goes,
pop! goes the weasel!

You may buy the baby clothes,
I will buy the crade,
that's the way the money goes,
pop!goes the weasel!

Round and round the market house,
the monkey chased the weasel,
the preacher kissed the peddler's wife,
pop! goes the weasel!

Round and round the cobbler's bench
the monkey chased the weasel,
the farmer kissed the cobbler's wife,
pop! goes the weasel!

In those last two versions, it's easy to see who got popped and why!

The dance (as described in the article I read) is formed by a circle of dancers in groups of three. The person in the middle of the trio holds the outside hands of the other two. They join their inside hands behind the middle person's back. When the dance starts, all skip counter-clockwise 12 steps. When the "pop" comes in the song, the middle person "pops under the arms of the other two and out behind their backs, where he/she will meet their next set of partners. You can see a slightly different version in this video from Youtube:

Probably more about this little nursery rhyme than you ever wanted to know!

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.


annie said...

It all amazes me when you trace back the origins of folk talk, you never know where you might end up. This was a very interesting post, I like the weaver one best too.

Mac n' Janet said...

Very interesting! You gave me more verses than I've ever heard before.

Nance said...

My g.g. grandmother's Weasel is in the local historical museum. My dad and his cousin reworked it many years ago but this is what they told us -- that the Weasel was the yarn winder and it counted the revolutions and when it came to a certain number, a gear or device 'popped' so that the woman knew to mark the skein (or some portion).

Granny Sue said...

That's fascinating, Nance! So they knew that version, and that seems to me the most logical explanation. I read two different ideas on the length it marked. One said 200 yards, one said 80. I imagine it depended on the size of the weasel.

Nance said...

I will go back and read my dear father's written description and will see what I find out. But, yes, there was "Pop" to let you know how many yards or skeins or feet that had been processed. But Yes, my dad knew why the women folk sang "Pop goes the weasel!"

Susan Anderson said...

I like the spinning story best, and it seems most plausible, too.


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