The History Behind 8 Famous Tongue Twisters

iStock
iStock

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.

10 Vacation Destinations That Ended Up in the Dictionary

iStock/Jasmina007
iStock/Jasmina007

Thinking of getting away from it all this summer? How about France? Italy? The Mediterranean? Or what about somewhere more exotic, like north Africa or southeast Asia? Well, no need to pop down to your local travel agent to find out more, because all of these can be found much closer to home in the pages of a dictionary …

1. Genoa, Italy

In the early Middle Ages, the city of Genoa in northwest Italy became known for its production of a type of fustian, a thick, hard-wearing cotton fabric typically used to make workmen’s clothes. In English, this cloth became known as gene fustian in honor of the city in which it was made, but over time gene altered to jean, and the hard-wearing workmen’s clothes made from it became known as jeans. The fabric that jeans are made of today, however, is denim—which was originally manufactured in and named for the city of Nîmes in southern France.

2. Paris, France

Speaking of France: The Romans knew Paris as Lutetia Parisorum, meaning “the swamps of the Parisii,” after the name of a local Gaulish tribe. It’s this Latin name, Lutetia, that is the origin of the chemical element lutetium, which was discovered by a team of scientists working in Paris’s Sorbonne University in 1907. Not that Paris is the only city with an element named after it, of course: hafnium derives from the Latin name for Copenhagen, Denmark; darmstadtium takes its name from Darmstadt in Germany; and holmium is named for Stockholm, the capital of Sweden. Speaking of which …

3. Sweden

A light napped leather made from the softer underside of animal hides, suede has been manufactured in northern Europe for centuries. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s that soft, high-quality suede gloves first began to be imported into Britain from France, when they were sold under their chic French name of gants du suèdes—or, the “gloves of Sweden.” The name soon stuck, and eventually came to be used of the fabric suede itself.

4. Milan, Italy

If you’re looking to buy a chic hat to match your chic Swedish gloves, then you’re best off heading to your local milliner’s. Millinery takes its name from the Italian city of Milan, from where all manner of high-end fashion accessories, including laces, gloves, handbags, and hats, were imported into England in the early 17th century. The name milliner—which was originally just another word for a Milanese person—eventually came to refer to anyone involved in the sale of such products (Shakespeare used it to mean a glove salesman in The Winter’s Tale), but over time its use came to refer only to someone involved in the hat trade.

5. Dubrovnik, Croatia

From Italy, it’s a short ferry trip to the stunning Croatian city—and UNESCO World Heritage site—of Dubrovnik. Like Paris, it’s Dubrovnik’s Latin name, Ragusa, that has found a permanent place in the language. In the late Middle Ages, the city became known for its large fleets of merchant ships that were known across Mediterranean Europe as ragusea, but in English this name eventually simplified (and metathesized) to argosy.

6. Cyprus

In Latin, copper was known as cuprum (which is why its chemical symbol is Cu, not Co). In turn, cuprum is a contraction of the Latin phrase Cyprium aes, meaning the “Cyprian metal,” because historically the Mediterranean island of Cyprus was a principal copper mine of the Roman Empire.

7. Mahón, Spain

Another Mediterranean island to have (apparently) found its way into the dictionary is Minorca, the second-largest of Spain’s Balearic Islands. When the island and its capital, Mahón, was captured by France during the Seven Years’ War in 1756, a local speciality was supposedly taken home by the victorious French troops: sauce mahonnaise, as it was known, made from a mix of oil, vinegar, and egg yolk, eventually became a popular condiment and garnish and was first introduced to the English-speaking world as mayonnaise in the early 1800s.

8. The Canary Islands

Another Spanish island group, the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, gave their name to the small finches that were found there by European settlers in the 16th century. The wild birds were originally a dull greenish color, but have since been domesticated and selectively bred to come in almost any color possible, although traditional yellow canaries are by far the most familiar. Despite their contribution to the language, incidentally, the Canary Islands themselves are actually named after dogs.

9. Tangier, Morocco

Head northeast from the Canary Islands and you’ll reach the Moroccan port of Tangier on the Straits of Gibraltar, which in the 18th century gave its name to a small, slightly darker-colored variety of mandarin orange that was grown in the area—the tangerine.

10. Sri Lanka

The word serendipity was coined by the English author and historian Horace Walpole, who wrote in a letter to his friend (and distant cousin) Horace Mann in 1754 of a discovery that was “almost of that kind which I call Serendipity.” Walpole explained that he had taken the word from “a silly fairy tale” called The Three Princes of Serendip, whose title characters “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” It might come from a “silly fairy tale,” but the magical land of Serendip is actually a real place—it’s an old name for the island of Sri Lanka.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

Why 'Run' Is The Most Complex Word in the English Language

iStock.com/VectorStory
iStock.com/VectorStory

English can be hard for other language speakers to learn. To use just one example, there are at least eight different ways of expressing events in the future, and conditional tenses are another matter entirely. For evidence of the many nuances and inconsistencies of the English tongue, look no further than this tricky poem penned in 1920. (For a sample: “Hiccough has the sound of cup. My advice is to give up!”)

As author Simon Winchester wrote for The New York Times, there’s one English word in particular that’s deceptively simple: run. As a verb, it boasts a record-setting 645 definitions. Peter Gilliver, a lexicographer and associate editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, spent nine months sussing out its many shades of meaning.

“You might think this word simply means ‘to go with quick steps on alternate feet, never having both or (in the case of many animals) all feet on the ground at the same time,’” Winchester writes. “But no such luck: that is merely sense I.1a, and there are miles to go before the reader of this particular entry may sleep.”

This wasn’t always the case, though. When the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, the word with the most definitions was set. However, the word put later outpaced it, and run eventually overtook them both as the English language's most complex word. Winchester thinks this evolution is partly due to advancements in technology (for instance, “a train runs on tracks” and “an iPad runs apps”).

He believes the widespread use of run—and its intricate web of meanings—is also a reflection of our times. “It is a feature of our more sort of energetic and frantic times that set and put seem, in a peculiar way, sort of rather stodgy, rather conservative,” Gilliver told NPR in an interview.

So the next time you tell your boss you "want to run an idea" by them, know that you’re unconsciously expressing your enthusiasm—as well as all the other subtleties wrapped up in run that previous words like set failed to capture.

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER