This long-ago rhyme popped up the other day: “I never saw a purple cow/I never hope to see one./But I can tell you, anyhow/I’d rather see one than be one!” Isn’t it funny how easily we can recite silly little ditties from memory? Incidentally, Gelett Burgess, a serious poet in the 1890’s, penned this nonsensical verse, which became more famous than anything else he ever wrote.
Then, as I skipped through my mind, I remembered a rhyme from the last school day of my first-grade year: “School’s out, school’s out!/Teacher let the monkeys out!/No more reading, no more books/No more teacher’s dirty looks!” Although the high school boys chanted it on the bus, I did not really appreciate it; I loved school and was sad it was over for the summer.
Another line also came back to me. When I was a kid, “How now brown cow” seemed popular for no clear reason. I later learned it had been around since the 1920’s as an exercise in speech class – elocution lessons, if you will – to encourage rounded vowel sounds.
And I always knew when my mother sat down at her portable typewriter, the first words she typed would be: “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” I was totally fascinated by her explanation that the sentence contained every letter of the alphabet. This “pangram” served as a typing class warm-up beginning in 1885 and remains in use these days to check computer keyboards and font spacing.
Poems, verses, even quirky little songs demonstrate how much I enjoy the sound of language. Jump rope rhymes fall right into that category. I was never all that great at the jumping itself, but I was your girl for rhyming. My all-time favorite: “Down in the valley where the green grass grows/There sat Susie as sweet as a rose/Along came Johnny and kissed her on the cheek/How many kisses did she get that week?”
I also liked: “Doctor, doctor, call the doctor/Mama had a newborn baby./Wrap it up in tissue paper./Send it down the elevator.” I never asked what it all meant; I just loved the rhythm and the rhyme.
Word fun for me often included certain mnemonic devices. My mother, quite the wordsmith herself, taught me my first one for the spelling of “geography”: “George Evans’ Oldest Girl Rode A Pig Home Yesterday.”
Of course, I could spell “geography” without assistance; actually, it took me longer to remember the sentence than the word. But ROY G. BIV has always helped me organize the rainbow colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
I learned the best-ever memory aid from my students, who had Jack Wood as their world history teacher at Graham. My inability to arrange Great Britain’s rulers in chronological order – the Jameses, the Charleses, William of Orange, Anne, Oliver Cromwell – disappeared with Mr. Wood’s lilting list: “Jim, Chuck, Ollie, Chuck, Citrus Bill, and Anne.” Try it out loud! Their names will just roll off your tongue!
I was old enough to consciously remember learning all these amusing expressions, as well as “99 Bottles of Beer,” which we sang to and from our junior high class trip, and “Great Green Gobs of Greasy, Grimy Gopher Guts” from 4-H camp. And during my sophomore year we sang endless rounds of the “Name Game”: “Shirley,Shirley,bo-birley/Banana-fana,fo-firley/Fee-fy,mo-mirley/Shirley.”
But I wonder: How did we learn to fall down at the end of “Ring Around the Rosie” or to catch someone in “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” Who taught my little teapot self to “tip me over and pour me out” or how to clap and chant: “Peas porridge hot/Peas porridge cold”?
I guess grandmothers and aunts shoulder some responsibility for making sure the little ones in their families can “patty cake” with the best of them. Maybe kids still learn “eenie, meenie, miney, mo” on the playground, and preschool teachers often use “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” during exercise time.
Sadly, my great-nieces and great-nephews are strewn across America, too far away for Great-Aunt Shirley to shower them with her entire repertoire of songs and rhymes.
I have heard reports, however, that this new generation is indeed involved in the onomatopoeia of animal talk. Today’s munchkins can buzz and hoot and moo and meow and cluck with gusto and charm. Simply ask what a turkey says, and on cue these kids gobble adorably – probably wondering why adults need so much repetition.
My youngest great-niece, however, has a mind of her own. According to eighteen-month-old Livy, ducks say “hooray.” She is in that golden period of 1825 days before kindergarten, during which she may learn “The Song That Never Ends,” the one Lamp Chop used to sing. Livy is probably already singing “The ABC Song” with older sister Keegan. Maybe one of the grandmothers will teach her “The Farmer in the Dell” or “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
But for now, I will defer to Livy. After all, she is the one hearing all the new songs on TV and her mother’s computer tablet. She is the one on the cutting edge of the latest chants and claps and dance moves.
And me? I am still enjoying my brand-new fun phrase: “Hooray for ducks!”
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.