Saturday, 6 March 2010

Pop Goes The Weasel

"Pop! Goes the Weasel" is an English language nursery rhyme and singing game. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 5249. (Pictured right: The Eagle pub in City Road, London, with the rhyme on the wall).
There are many different versions of the lyrics to the song. Most share the basic verse:

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

Often a second verse is added:

Every night when I get home
The monkey's on the table,
Take a stick and knock it off,
Pop! goes the weasel.
Despite some assumptions this song can only be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century, when a music sheet acquired by the British Library in 1853 described a dance, 'Pop! Goes the Weasel', which was, according to the music sheet, 'An Old English Dance, as performed at Her Majesty's & The Nobilities Balls, with the Original Music'. It had a tune very similar to that used today and only the words "Pop! Goes the Weasle". There is evidence that several people tried to add lyrics to the popular tune. The following verse had been written by 1855 when it quoted in a performance at the Theatre Royal:

Up and down the City Road
In and out the Eagle
That's the way the money goes
Pop! goes the weasel.
As a singing game
In Britain the rhyme has been played as a children's game since at least the late nineteenth century. The game is played to the "first" verse quoted above. Several rings are formed and they dance around as the verse is sung. One more players than the number of rings are designated as "weasels", all but one standing in the rings. When the "Pop! goes the weasel" line is reached they have to rush to a new ring before anyone else can. The one that fails is eliminated and the number of circles is reduced by one until there is only one weasel left.

Meaning and interpretations
Perhaps because of the obscure nature of the lyrics there have been many suggestions for their significance, particularly over the meaning of the phrase 'Pop! goes the weasel', including: that it is a tailor's flat iron, a hatter's tool, a clock reel used for measuring in spinning, a piece of silver plate, or that 'weasel and stoat' is rhyming slang for 'coat', which is 'popped or pawned' to visit or after visiting the Eagle pub, that it is a mishearing of weevil or vaisselle, that it was a nickname of James I, and that 'rice' and 'treacle' are slang terms for potassium nitrate and charcoal and that therefore the rhyme refers to the gunpowder plot. Other than correspondences none of these theories has any additional evidence to support it, and some can be discounted because of the known history of the song. Iona and Pete Opie observed that, even at the height of the dance craze in the 1850s no-one seemed to know what the phrase meant.
It is possible that the "eagle" mentioned in the song's third verse refers to The Eagle freehold pub along Shepherdess Walk in London, which was established as a music hall in 1825 and was rebuilt as a public house in 1901. This public house bears a plaque with this interpretation of the nursery rhyme and the pub's history. Shepherdess Walk is just off the City Road mentioned in the same verse.