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Heavy Words Lightly Thrown : The Reason Behind the Rhyme (edition 2005)

by Chris Roberts

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Title:Heavy Words Lightly Thrown : The Reason Behind the Rhyme
Authors:Chris Roberts
Info:(2005), Hardcover, 224 pages
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Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme by Chris Roberts

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I bought this because I saw a friend's post on it and it sounded interesting. Plus I'm a sucker for a good title.

Unfortunately, it doesn't really live up. And the subtitle is way off. Rather than "The Reason Behind the Rhyme," it should be "Apocryphal Stories and Historical Gossip Tangentially Related to Nursery Rhymes." But I suppose that lacks a certain . . . clichéness. (Wow. How's that for getting my snark on?)

But I sound a lot more disappointed than I actually am. I didn't have any real reason for high expectations; it's not like my friend was saying it was the book of the year or anything. And the title was, of course, stolen from a Smiths song. So I wasn't terribly let down or anything. I had hoped for him to stay a bit more focused, though. Often it seemed like he was taking every opportunity to go off on some barely related tangent. I'm not much a fan of that kind of rhetoric, so I usually found that annoying. If you are a fan of it—and plenty of people are, it's nothing to be ashamed of—then you'll probably love the book.

It did seem like he kept telling the same stories over and over, but I suspect that's due to (a) my lack of knowledge/interest concerning British royals and (2) the fact that said royals keep getting into the same kinds of scandals over and over, generation after generation. ( )
  spoko | Nov 14, 2013 |
I really loved reading this book. I've always been fascinated by childhood rhymes and the stories behind them. This is well written and down to the level, with some great jokes and quips thrown into every article for each new piece. I'd advise to anyone with even a passing fancy. It's a quick, fun, lighthearted to read write-up of as it says some pretty heavy stuff.

( )
  wanderlustlover | Jul 24, 2013 |
In this book, author Chris Roberts considers English language nursery rhymes in terms of their original, historical meanings. He traces some of these rhymes to the Middle Ages, but many others to the Tudor and Stuart monarchies of the 1500s through the early 1700s. In his account, these innocent- seeming rhymes reveal “religious hatred, political subversion, and sexual innuendo.” Thus, Humpty Dumpty is said to have been a cannon placed on the wall of a Colchester church. “Georgy Porgy” allegedly refers to the unpopular and portly George IV, and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was originally a complaint against taxes. “Sing a Song of Sixpence” might refer to Henry VIII, and his first two wives. or maybe not -- and that raises a problem.

For many of the rhymes discussed, the author presents multiple, conflicting interpretations, each of which he supports with conjecture and speculation. This practice calls into question the legitimacy and accuracy of the book.

For example, consider “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary.” One possibility is that it is a jibe at Mary, Queen of Scots -- “the pretty maids all in a row” being a reference to the rampant promiscuity at court. Alternatively, the “garden” of the rhyme may be a cemetery full of Protestant martyrs, and the “silver bells and cockle shells” instruments of torture – in which case the Mary actually may be England’s Mary Tudor (aka “Bloody Mary”). Or perhaps the “Mary” is the mother of Jesus, and the “cockle shells” were badges worn by religious pilgrims. When a single simple rhyme gives rise to so many discrepant interpretations, clearly the reader can have no confidence in any one of them. Roberts sidesteps the contradictions by proposing that the rhyme “has come to represent either Mary, depending on how it is interpreted.” What can he possibly mean by this statement? The rhyme had an origin and a history, regardless of whether we can reconstruct what they were. Most of the rhymes discussed are of this sort – ones with multiple possible interpretations which are not able to be distinguished. Thus, this book becomes an exercise in imaginative speculation, not historical reconstruction.

In an afterword, the author gives the game away: ”Heavy Words was never meant to be a particularly scholarly exercise…. there are many alternative theories for several of the rhymes featured here, but this book has gone for the most interesting and plausible… “ The most interesting!? And so: entertainment was the goal. For anything like historical accuracy, readers will have to look elsewhere. ( )
7 vote danielx | May 4, 2011 |
What a fun book! Everything I hoped it would be – entertaining, educational and a source of conversation topics at cocktail parties for months to come.

Heavy Words Lightly Thrown is a small collection of the stories and characters behind some of the world’s most popular (and sometimes obscure) nursery rhymes. With a few pages dedicated to each, the book proves a quick read while learning the true meaning of Baa Baa Blacksheep and the secret identity of Jack Sprat.

Admittedly, since it is written by a British author for a British audience, some of the more “obscure” nursery rhymes may prove more recognizable in Europe. But even for those, I found the descriptions of “Elsie Marley is Grown So Fine,” “Grand Old Duke of York” and “Turn Again, Whittington” entertaining in and of themselves, regardless of the fact I had never heard of any of them before. Highly Recommended. ( )
5 vote pbadeer | Aug 2, 2010 |
Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme features an enjoyably British overview of popular nursery rhymes and their possible origins. Roberts does a thorough, humorous job of bringing history to life--I mean really, he quotes Eddie Izzard's "Tea or cakes or death" line in summarizing the Church of England. The majority of the rhymes were familiar to me, a California-raised American.

I was surprised by how old many of the nursery rhymes were. "London Bridge" is thought to celebrate the alliance of Aethelred the Unready and King Olav of Norway. Olav attached his ships to the bridge and at high tide floated the structure away. However, many of the rhymes date to the period of Henry VIII and shortly thereafter when religious tensions were high and often bloody.

I have to say, I feel odd reading my son's current favorite book, Mother Goose in California since finding out that "Goosey goosey gander" is about prostitutes and the whole Jack and Jill climbing a hill is really a euphemism for sex. It's like when I was a teenager and realized that the skunk Pepe le Pew was trying to rape a cat in all of those old cartoons.

I'm definitely keeping this book in my reference collection... though I think I'll hide it from my son for the next decade. Oh, sweet innocence! ( )
2 vote ladycato | Feb 12, 2010 |
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It should come as no surprise that nursery rhymes are full of sex, death, and cruelty.
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A history of the origins and meanings of nursery rhymes reveals the popular sport behind "Jack Be Nimble" and Humpty Dumpty's identity as a cannon mounted on the walls of a Colchester church.

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