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This article is about the nursery rhyme. For other meanings, see Humpty Dumpty (disambiguation).
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Humpty Dumpty is a character in an English language nursery rhyme, probably originally a riddle and one of the best known in the English-speaking world.[1] He is typically portrayed as an egg and has appeared or been referred to in a large number of works of literature and popular culture. The rhyme has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 13026.


The most common modern text is:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.[1]


The rhyme does not explicitly state that the subject is an egg because it probably was originally posed as a riddle.[1] The earliest known version is in a manuscript addition to a copy of Mother Goose's Melody published in 1803, which has the modern version with a different last line: "Could not set Humpty Dumpty up again".[1] It was first published in 1810 in a version of Gammer Gurton's Garland as:

Humpty Dumpty sate [sic] on a wall,
Humpti Dumpti [sic] had a great fall;
Threescore men and threescore more,
Cannot place Humpty dumpty as he was before.[2]

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the term "humpty dumpty" referred to a drink of brandy boiled with ale in the seventeenth century.[1] The riddle probably exploited, for misdirection, the fact that "humpty dumpty" was also eighteenth-century reduplicative slang for a short and clumsy person.[3] The riddle may depend on the assumption that, whereas a clumsy person falling off a wall might not be irreparably damaged, an egg would be.[1] The rhyme is no longer posed as a riddle, since the answer is now so well known.[1] Similar riddles have been recorded by folklorists in other languages, such as "Boule Boule" in French, or "Lille Trille" in Swedish and Norwegian; though none is as widely known as Humpty Dumpty is in English.[1]

There are also various theories of an original "Humpty Dumpty". The suggestion that Humpty Dumpty was a "tortoise" siege engine, an armoured frame, used unsuccessfully to approach the walls of the Parliamentary held city of Gloucester in 1643 during the Siege of Gloucester in the English Civil War, was put forward in 1956 by Professor David Daube in The Oxford Magazine of February 16, 1956, on the basis of a contemporary account of the attack, but without evidence that the rhyme was connected.[4] The theory, part of an anonymous series of articles on the origin of nursery rhymes, was widely acclaimed in academia,[5] but was derided by others as "ingenuity for ingenuity's sake" and declared to be a spoof.[6][7] The link was nevertheless popularised by a children's musical first performed in 1969.[8] From 1996 the website of Colchester tourist board attributed the origin of the rhyme to a cannon recorded as used from the church of St Mary-at-the-Wall by the Royalist defenders in the siege of 1648.[9] In his 2008 book Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes author Albert Jack claimed that there were two other verses supporting this claim.[10] Elsewhere he claimed to have found them in an "old dusty library, [in] an even older book",[11] but did not state what the book was or where it was found. It has been pointed out that the two additional verses are not in the style of the seventeenth century, or the existing rhyme, and that they do not fit with the earliest printed version of the rhyme, which do not mention horses and men.[9]

Another theory, advanced by Katherine Ewles Thomas[12] and adopted by Robert Ripley,[1] posits that Humpty Dumpty is King Richard III of England, depicted in Tudor histories, and particularly in Shakespeare's play, as humpbacked and who was defeated, despite his armies at Bosworth Field in 1485. However, the term humpback was not recorded until the eighteenth century and no direct evidence linking the rhyme with the historical figure has been advanced.[13]

American actor George L. Fox helped to popularize the character in 19th century stage productions of pantomime, music and rhyme.[14]

In Through the Looking-Glass

File:Humpty Dumpty Tenniel.jpg

Humpty Dumpty and Alice. From Through the Looking-Glass. Illustration by John Tenniel.

Humpty appears in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1872), where he discusses semantics and pragmatics with Alice.

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master      that’s all.”

    Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”[15]

This passage was used in Britain by Lord Atkin and in his dissenting judgement in the seminal case Liversidge v. Anderson (1942), where he protested about the distortion of a statute by the majority of the House of Lords.[16] It also became a popular citation in United States legal opinions, appearing in 250 judicial decisions in the Westlaw database as of April 19, 2008, including two Supreme Court cases (TVA v. Hill and Zschernig v. Miller).[17]

It has been suggested that Carroll's Humpty Dumpty had prosopagnosia on the basis of his description of his finding faces hard to recognize.

    “The face is what one goes by, generally,” Alice remarked in a thoughtful tone.
    “That’s just what I complain of,” said Humpty Dumpty. “Your face is the same as everybody has—the two eyes, so      ” (marking their places in the air with his thumb) “nose in the middle, mouth under. It’s always the same. Now if you had the two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance—or the mouth at the top—that would be some help.”[18]

Other appearances in fiction and popular culture

File:Humpty Dumpty 1 - WW Denslow - Project Gutenberg etext 18546.jpg

Humpty Dumpty, shown as a riddle with answer, in a 1902 Mother Goose story book by William Wallace Denslow

In addition to his appearance in Alice Though the Looking-glass, as a character Humpty Dumpty has been used in a large range of literary works, including L. Frank Baum's Mother Goose in Prose (1901), where the rhyming riddle is devised by the daughter of the king, having witnessed Humpty's "death" and her father's soldiers' efforts to save him.[19] Robert Rankin used Humpty Dumpty as one victim of a serial fairy-tale character murderer in The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse (2002).[20] Jasper Fforde included Humpty Dumpty in two of his novels, The Well of Lost Plots (2003)[21] and The Big Over Easy (2005),[22] which use him respectively as a ringleader of dissatisfied nursery rhyme characters threatening to strike and as the victim of a murder. The rhyme has also been used as a reference in more serious literary works, including Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel All the King's Men, the story of Willie Stark's rise to the position of governor and eventual fall, based on the career of the corrupt Louisiana Senator Huey Long, which won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize and was made into a film All the King's Men and which won the 1949 Academy Award for best motion picture.[23] This was echoed in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's book All the President's Men, about the Watergate scandal, referring to the failure of the President's staff to repair the damage once the scandal had leaked out. It was filmed as All the President's Men in 1976, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.[24] It has also been used as a common motif in popular music, including Hank Thompson's "Humpty Dumpty Heart" (1948).[25], The Monkees' "All the King's Horses," and Aretha Franklin's "All the King's Horses" (1972).[26] In jazz, Ornette Coleman and Chick Corea wrote different compositions, both incidentally titled Humpty Dumpty (in Corea's case, however, it is a part of a concept album inspired by Lewis Carroll, called "The Mad Hatter").[27][28]

See also

  • All the King's Horses
  • All the King's Men
  • Un Petit d'un Petit, a homophonic translation into faux French


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), ISBN 0-19-869111-4, pp. 213-5.
  2. Joseph Ritson Gammer Gurton's Garland: or, the Nursery Parnassus; a Choice Collection of Pretty Songs and Verses, for the Amusement of All Little Good Children Who Can Neither Read Nor Run (London: Harding and Wright, 1810), p. 36.
  3. E. Partridge and P. Beale, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 8th edn., 2002), ISBN 0415291895, p. 582.
  4. "Nursery Rhymes and History", The Oxford Magazine, volume 74, 1956, pages 230-232, 272-274 and 310-312; reprinted in: Calum M. Carmichael (editor), Collected Works of David Daube, Volume 4, Ethics and Other Writings, Robbins Collection, Berkeley, California, 2009, pages 365-366. ISBN 978-1882239153.
  5. Alan Rodger. "Obituary: Professor David Daube". The Independent, March 5, 1999.
  6. I. Opie, 'Playground rhymes and the oral tradition', in P. Hunt, S. G. Bannister Ray, International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature (London: Routledge, 2004), ISBN 0203168127, p. 76.
  7. Iona and Peter Opie (editors ). The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford University Press, 1997. p. 254. ISBN 978-0198600886.
  8. C. M. Carmichael, Ideas and the Man: remembering David Daube, vol. 177 of Studien zur europäischen Rechtsgeschichte (Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann, 2004), ISBN 3465033639, pp. 103-4.
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Putting the 'dump' in Humpty Dumpty" The BS Historian. Retrieved 22 February 2010.
  10. A. Jack, Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes (London: Allen Lane, 2008), ISBN 1846141443.
  11. "The Real Story of Humpty Dumpty, by Albert Jack", (USA). Retrieved 24 February 2010.
  12. E. Commins, Lessons from Mother Goose (Lack Worth, Fl: Humanics, 1988), ISBN 089334110X, p. 23.
  13. J. T. Shipley, The Origins of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (JHU Press, 2001), ISBN 0801867843, p. 127.
  14. The Age and Stage of George L. Fox 1825-1877 c.1988 by Laurence Senelick
  15. L. Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (Raleigh, NC: Hayes Barton Press, 1872), ISBN 1593772165, p. 72.
  16. G. Lewis, Lord Atkin (London: Butterworths, 1999), ISBN 1-84113-057-5, p. 138.
  17. Westlaw search (ALLCASES database), April 19, 2008.
  18. A. J. Larner, "Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty: an early report of prosopagnosia?" Journal of Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry, 75 (7) (1998).
  19. L. Frank Baum, Mother Goose in Prose (Mineola, NY: Courier Dover, 2002), ISBN 0486420868, pp. 207-20.
  20. R. Rankin, The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse (London: Gollancz, 2009), ISBN 0575085436.
  21. J. Fforde, Well of Lost Plots (London: Viking, 2004), ISBN 0670032891.
  22. J. Fforde, The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime (London: Penguin, 2006), ISBN 0143037234.
  23. G. L. Cronin and B. Siegel, eds, Conversations With Robert Penn Warren (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), ISBN 1578067340, p. 84.
  24. M. Feeney, Nixon at the Movies: a Book About Belief, (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), ISBN 0226239683, p. 256.
  25. R. Kienzle, Southwest Shuffle: Pioneers of Honky Tonk, Western Swing, and Country Jazz (London: Routledge, 2003), ISBN 0415941032, p. 134.
  26. B. L. Cooper, Popular Music Perspectives: Ideas, Themes, and Patterns in Contemporary Lyrics (London: Popular Press, 1991), ISBN 0879725052, p. 160.
  27. "Ornette Coleman – Humpty Dumpty (LP Version)". Retrieved July 6, 2010. 
  28. "Chick Corea – The Mad Hatter". Retrieved July 6, 2010. 

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