The History Behind 8 Famous Tongue Twisters

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Tongue twisters have been screwing up speaking abilities around the world for centuries. As entertaining as tripping over tricky terms can be, early English twisters were also used to teach pupils proper speech. In a note to teachers in his 1878 book Practical Elocution, J.W. Shoemaker reminded them of the "higher motive" of these confounding sayings: "To The Teacher—While many of the exercises ... may create amusement in a class, a higher motive than 'Amusement' has prompted their insertion. Practice is here afforded in nearly every form of difficult articulation."

Whether it's selling seashells by the seashore or buying Betty Botter's bitter butter, some of these difficult phrases go way back to when elocution was practiced as routinely as multiplication tables. Come along as we untangle the history behind a few familiar phrases. Fittingly, many tongue twister origin stories are just as knotty as the expressions themselves.

1. PETER PIPER

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers;
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

Peter and his famous pickled peppers first appeared in print in 1813 in John Harris's Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation.

But as is the case with many classic tongue twisters, the rhyme itself may have already been in common use by that time (the book offered similarly formatted phrases for each letter of the alphabet, and Peter clearly got top billing).

Several spice enthusiasts have also suggested the Peter in question was based on 18th century French horticulturalist Pierre Poivre, though that connection should probably be taken with a grain of salt (or pepper, in this case).

Much like Mary Anning and her rumored seashore seashells (more on this later), Poivre's ties to the poem, while feasible, aren't necessarily rooted in concrete evidence. Poivre is French for "pepper," Piper was both Latin for "pepper" and a typical British last name, and the man was known for smuggling cloves from the Spice Islands in his day, so the supposed link makes sense. As a renowned gardener, Poivre may very well have pickled peppers with those stolen cloves, but we don’t actually know for sure.

2. HOW MUCH WOOD WOULD A WOODCHUCK CHUCK?

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?

While it likely predates her, Vaudeville performer Fay Templeton is credited with putting the woodchucking woodchuck on the map. “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” was the chorus of a number Templeton sang in 1903 in the Broadway musical The Runaways (not to be confused with the musical Runaways).

Robert Hobart Davis and Theodore F. Morse wrote Templeton’s "Woodchuck Song," and a few years later “Ragtime” Bob Roberts covered it on his 1904 record, boosting its popularity. The tongue-tripping refrain stuck around and even inspired the title of director Werner Herzog’s 1976 documentary "How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck: Observations on a New Language" about the 13th International World Livestock Auctioneering Championship.

More recently, scholars have focused less on the origin of the phrase and more on the answer to its central question. In 1988, a fish and wildlife technician for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation made national headlines when he posited if a woodchuck could chuck wood (because they actually can’t) it would be able to chuck about 700 pounds of the stuff—but that little detail must not have fit into the linguistic flow of the original rhyme.

3. AND 4. BETTY BOTTER AND TWO TOOTERS

Betty Botter bought some butter;
"But," said she, "this butter's bitter!
If I put it in my batter
It will make my batter bitter.
But a bit o' better butter
Will but make my batter better."
Then she bought a bit o’ butter
Better than the bitter butter,
Made her bitter batter better.
So 'twas better Betty Botter
Bought a bit o’ better butter.

**

A tutor who tooted the flute
Tried to teach two young tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tutor,
"Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?"

Both these classic twisters can be traced to poet and novelist Carolyn Wells's writings in the late 1890s. Betty Botter would go on to be included in Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes and both verses can be found in several variations. While we don’t know who or what exactly sparked the characters of Betty or the tutor, we do know Wells was pretty prolific in terms of her writing. Her 1902 book A Nonsense Anthology—another volume of silly linguistic gymnastics—would be her most famous, but she was also behind more than 100 other books, including mysteries and children’s stories. As if her written contributions to the American language weren't enough, Wells was also known for donating her epic collection of Walt Whitman manuscripts and first editions to the Library of Congress.

5. SHE SELLS SEASHELLS

She sells seashells on the sea shore.
The shells she sells are seashells, I'm sure.
And if she sells seashells on the sea shore,
Then I'm sure she sells seashore shells.

The story behind "She Sells Seashells" has gotten perhaps the most attention in recent years. Legend has it the rhyme is a tribute to 19th century English paleontologist Mary Anning.

Anning was an impressive fossil hunter who is thought to have been responsible for scientific achievements from discovering the first articulated plesiosaur to being among the first to identify fossilized poop—though her male contemporaries had a frustrating way of swiping credit from her.

Anning is known in scientific circles (Charles Dickens even wrote about his admiration for her after her 1847 death) but the idea that she’s also the muse behind the tongue twister has given the general public a nice way to honor her as well. Of course, as Stephen Winick of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center pointed out, we don’t actually have anything that proves the rumored connection between Anning and the tongue twister. Many outlets cited the 1908 Terry Sullivan and Harry Gifford song that includes the phrase in its lyrics as the birth of this particular tongue twister, but Winick found a handful of earlier instances of its use (similar versions were included in Shoemaker’s elocution book and published in an 1898 issue of Werner’s Magazine, for example). The first known suggestion that the verse was related to Anning seems to be a 1977 book Henry De la Beche: Observations on an Observer, though it was only raised as a possibility and there was no source offered for the reference.

6. I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM

I scream, you scream,
We all scream for ice cream.

Tongues didn't get particularly twisted with this one, but they did get cold.

There’s some disagreement on who first came up with this ditty about everyone’s favorite frozen treat. Throughout the 19th century there were many jokes and comments about how similar “ice cream” and “I scream” sound. But in 1905 a company selling ice cream freezers in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, advertised “I Scream, You Scream, We all Scream for Ice Cream! This is certainly Ice Cream Weather. Have you a good Ice Cream Freezer?” While unlikely the first usage of the phrase (something very similar appears in Wisconsin a few months earlier), the rhyme probably became famous thanks to Howard Johnson, Billy Moll, and Robert King, who wrote the phrase into a song of the same name in 1927. Waring’s Pennsylvanians recorded the song, and it became a jazz standard in the '40s. It’s been making people hungry, and haunting ice cream truck drivers, ever since.

7. SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS

Maybe the best-known one-word tongue twister, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious isn't short on complicated back story. Most people associate the mouthful of a nonsense word with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke dancing with cartoons from the 1964 movie adaptation of P.L. Travers's book series Mary Poppins.

But according to songwriters Barney Young and Gloria Parker, they'd used the word first (or a slight variation on it, supercalafajalistickespeealadojus) in their song, which was also known as "The Super Song." So when Disney came out with their song, written by Robert and Richard Sherman, Young and Parker took them to court for copyright infringement. The Shermans claimed they'd learned the funny word at camp as children in the '30s. Young and Parker said Young had made up the word as a kid in 1921 and the pair had sent their song to Disney in 1951. They sued for $12 million.

The judge in the ordeal was so flustered by the 14-syllable term in court proceedings, he insisted they refer to it as simply "the word." He ended up throwing out the case, saying the tongue twister had been in common use in New York as far back as the '30s, but the controversy always lingered. Later, another instance of the word being used in 1931, this time spelled supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus, was discovered. It had appeared in the Syracuse University student newspaper [PDF], and the writer of the column claimed she'd been the one who made it up, too.

8. PAD KID

Pad kid poured curd pulled cod

Not yet as recognizable as some other more traditional rhymes, this short sentence was developed by MIT researchers in 2013 as the world’s trickiest twister. The phrase is deceptively harder than something like the "I Scream" song or even the woodchucking woodchuck.

As part of the 166th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, where the facilitators were looking to find how certain speech patterns work psychologically, volunteers were recorded during the project reciting different types of twisters—and Pad Kid caused the most trouble. Because of the phrase's alliteration and words with similar sounds, the brain makes it difficult to repeat quickly without a mistake.

Previously, “The sixth sick sheikh's sixth sheep's sick” was often cited as the world’s toughest twister (it even held the Guinness World Record for a time). But as the official category no longer exists, the MIT creation just might take the tongue twister cake.

From Farts to Floozy: These Are the Funniest Words in English, According to Science

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iStock.com/jeangill

Fart. Booty. Tinkle. Weiner. We know these words have the ability to make otherwise mature individuals laugh, but how? And why? Is it their connotations to puerile activities? Is it the sound they make? And if an underlying structure can be found to explain why people find them humorous, can we then objectively determine a word funnier than bunghole?

Chris Westbury, a professor of psychology at the University of Alberta, believes we can. With co-author Geoff Hollis, Westbury recently published a paper ("Wriggly, Squiffy, Lummox, and Boobs: What Makes Some Words Funny?") online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. The two analyzed an existing list of 4997 funny words compiled by the University of Warwick and assessed by 800 survey participants, whittling down the collection to the 200 words the people found funniest. Westbury wanted to see how a word's phonology (sound), spelling, and meaning influenced whether people found it amusing, as well as the effectiveness of incongruity theory—the idea that the more a word subverts expectations, the funnier it gets.

In an email to Mental Floss, Westbury said that a good example of incongruity theory is this video of an orangutan being duped by a magic trick. While he's not responding to a word, clearly he's tickled by the subversion of his own expectations:

With incongruity theory in mind, Westbury was able to generate various equations that attempted to predict whether a person would find a single word amusing. He separated the words into categories—insults, sexual references, party terms, animals, names for body parts, and profanity. Among those examined: gobble, boogie, chum, oink, burp, and turd.

Upchuck topped one chart, followed by bubby and boff, the latter a slang expression for sexual intercourse. Another equation found that slobbering, puking, and fuzz were reliable sources of amusement. Words with the letters j, k, and y also scored highly, and the vowel sound /u/ appeared in 20 percent of words the University of Warwick study deemed funny, like pubes, nude, and boobs.

In the future, Westbury hopes to examine word pairs for their ability to amuse. The smart money is on fart potato to break the top five.

[h/t Live Science]

15 Fun Phrases Popularized During Prohibition

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Keystone/Getty Images

Prohibition ended 85 years ago—on December 5, 1933—but the colorful colloquialisms it brought about will live on forever. Here are just a handful of them.

1. Blind pig

An illegal drinking establishment, a.k.a. a speakeasy, that attempted to evade police detection by charging patrons a fee to gaze upon some sort of exotic creature (i.e. a blind pig) and be given a complimentary cocktail upon entrance. Also known as a blind tiger.

2. Juice joint

Yet another term for an illegal drinking establishment.

3. Jake walk

A paralysis or loss of muscle control in the hands and feet, due to an overconsumption of Jamaican ginger, a.k.a. Jake, a legal substance with an alcoholic base. The numbness led sufferers to walk with a distinct gait that was also known as Jake leg or Jake foot.

4. Ombibulous

A term made up by writer H.L. Mencken to describe his love of alcohol; he noted, “I'm ombibulous. I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.” Mencken was also fond of referring to bootleggers as booticians and is alleged to have invented the term boozehound.

5. Skid road

A precursor to the term “Skid Row,” a skid road was the place where loggers hauled their goods. During Prohibition, these “roads” became popular meeting places for bootleggers.

6. Brick of wine

Oenophiles looking to get their vino fix could do so by simply adding water to a dehydrated block of juice, which would become wine. (And you thought a box of wine was bad!)

7. Bathtub gin

A homemade—and often poorly made—gin that was preferably served in a bottle so tall that it could not be mixed with water from a sink tap, so was mixed in a bathtub instead. Though the phrase references gin specifically, it came to be used as a general term for any type of cheap homemade booze.

8. White lightning

The whiskey equivalent of bathtub gin; a highly potent, illegally made, and poor-quality spirit.

9. Teetotaler

A person who abstains from the consumption of alcohol. The phrase is believe to have originated within the Prohibition era’s temperance societies, where members would add a “T” to their signatures to indicate total abstinence (T+total-ers). 

10. Dry

A noun used in reference to a man or woman who is opposed to the legal sale of alcoholic beverages. Bureau of Prohibition agents were often referred to as Dry Agents (though corruption among this crew ran rampant). As an adjective, it describes a place where alcohol is not served. 

11. Wet

The opposite of dry, a wet is a person who is for the legal sale of alcoholic beverages or a place where liquor is in full supply.

12. Whale

A heavy drinker. 

13. Blotto

Extremely drunk, often to the point of unconsciousness.

14. Hooch

Low-quality liquor, usually whiskey. The term originated in the late 1800s as a shortened version of “Hoochinoo,” a distilled beverage from Alaska that became popular during the Klondike gold rush. The phrase came back into heavy use in the 1920s. 

15. Giggle water

An alcoholic beverage.

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