In September, I mentioned that I’d been writing a weekly Fun Facts About English series, and my original goal was to produce 50 posts. This week, I’m at number 38 with a topic that I’m pleased to re-encounter. I thought I’d share it as a regular post with some added personal history.
One year in late October, I introduced the song, This Old Man, to my kindergarten students for the December talent show (お遊戯会); a tune unfamiliar to my Japanese colleagues at the time. The Encho (Director) grilled me oh-so-condescendingly about the meaning of certain lyrics like ‘nick-nack paddywhack,’ stating she had to explain the meaning to parents who ‘desperately wanted to know.’ In those pre-Internet days, I had few avenues for such research. The best I could say was that the words were largely nonsensical though rhythmic word-plays meant for children. The Encho escalated the issue wanting to strike the song from the program when an amazing thing happened. In December, This Old Man appeared in a catchy television commercial and poof! the controversy went away. With the song included in the talent show, it created the appearance that the kindergarten had its finger on the timely pulse of popular culture. I was off the hook and, by the time of the show, everybody was humming the tune.
Since then, I’ve done my research.
The Fun Fact above collapses two very separate periods of history regarding This Old Man, as the rhyme itself goes back hundreds of years, long before hitting a linguistic and cultural pothole in the Victorian era.
Besides a slap or a sharp blow, paddywhack also refers to the tough neck ligament found in many four-legged animals such as sheep and cattle. Even today, this chewy and protein-rich ligament is often sold as a dried dog treat.
This Old Man
This old man,
He played one,
He played nick-nack on my thumb,
With a nick-nack paddywhack,
Give a dog a bone,
This old man came rolling home.
Though it’s difficult to determine the exact meaning of the Old English counting rhyme, there are clues as to what it may be referring. One is “nick-nack” and the practice of “playing the bones.”
After a feast of lamb or swine, the Irish would fashion the animal’s rib bones into a musical instrument held between the fingers and clacked together, aka playing the bones. This evolved into the more contemporary playing of spoons. Nick-nack refers to the clacking sound of the bones, much like we say rat-a-tat-tat for the sound of a drum.
It’s also important to note that bones used in this musical fashion dates back to ancient China, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
As for a ‘severe beating,’ though recent interpretations point to Victorian (1840s) slang and giving an Irishman (Paddy) a whack, paddywhack’s much older etymology connects the word to paxwax, the Old English term for an animal’s nuchal ligament. The word whack, meaning to strike forcefully, doesn’t appear until the early 18th century and may be derivative of the Middle English word thwack, as in “I shall thwack him senseless!” Paddy, as in “an Irishman,” is from the late 18th century and is a derisive nickname for the proper Irish name Patrick (Pádraic, Pádraig, Páraic). In short, paddywhack, Paddy, and whack have completely separate etymologies.*
On the other hand, it’s easily imagined that the long, elastic paddywhack of an animal could be used as an instrument of discipline – much like ‘getting a switchin’ with a tree switch, or a ‘paddlin’ with a wooden paddle. Ouch!
Be sure to check out the three videos below – living proof our ancient musical and linguistic history is still alive!
As always, best of luck in your classes!
Kinney Brothers Publishing
*When researching This Old Man, it was shocking to find some wildly speculative theories on the origins of the song. One lengthy Reddit thread suggested that the song was about a perverted old man who played sexually provocative games on children’s body parts. Another blogger made a clumsy (and flat-out wrong) assertion that the song was about poor and starving Irish who traveled in wagons selling knickknacks and the English who would rather give a dog a bone than give money to a “Paddy.”
We must be very careful about what people may imagine as opposed to what historical research can actually tell us. Though paddywhack is now incontrovertibly linked to Victorian-era animosities, its origins are far more culturally rich and enjoyable.