Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty is a character in an English nursery rhyme, probably originally a riddle and one of the best known in the English-speaking world. He is typically portrayed as an anthropomorphic egg, though he is not explicitly described as such. The first recorded versions of the rhyme date from late eighteenth-century England and the tune from 1870 in James William Elliott's National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs.[1] Its origins are obscure, and several theories have been advanced to suggest original meanings.

"Humpty Dumpty"
Illustration by W. W. Denslow, 1904
Nursery rhyme

Humpty Dumpty was popularized in the United States on Broadway by actor George L. Fox in the pantomime musical Humpty Dumpty.[2] The show ran from 1868 to 1869, for a total of 483 performances, becoming the longest-running Broadway show until it was surpassed in 1881 by Hazel Kirke.[3] As a character and literary allusion, Humpty Dumpty has appeared or been referred to in many works of literature and popular culture, particularly English author Lewis Carroll's 1871 book Through the Looking-Glass, in which he was described as an egg. The rhyme is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index as No. 13026.

Lyrics and melody

The rhyme is one of the best known in the English language. The common text from 1954 is:[4]

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.

It is a single quatrain with external rhymes[5] that follow the pattern of AABB and with a trochaic metre, which is common in nursery rhymes.[6] The melody commonly associated with the rhyme was first recorded by composer and nursery rhyme collector James William Elliott in his National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs (London, 1870), as outlined below:[7]


Illustration from Walter Crane's Mother Goose's Nursery Rhymes (1877), showing Humpty Dumpty as a boy

The earliest known version was published in Samuel Arnold's Juvenile Amusements in 1797[1] with the lyrics:[4]

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.

William Carey Richards (1818–1892) quoted the poem in 1843, commenting, "when we were five years old ... the following parallel lines... were propounded as a riddle ... Humpty-dumpty, reader, is the Dutch or something else for an egg".[8]

A manuscript addition to a copy of Mother Goose's Melody published in 1803 has the modern version with a different last line: "Could not set Humpty Dumpty up again".[4] It was published in 1810 in a version of Gammer Gurton's Garland.[9] (Note: Original spelling variations left intact.)

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

In 1842, James Orchard Halliwell published a collected version as:[10]

Humpty Dumpty lay in a beck.
With all his sinews around his neck;
Forty Doctors and forty wrights
Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty to rights!

The modern-day version of this nursery rhyme, as known throughout the UK since at least the mid-twentieth century, is as follows:

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.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the 17th century, the term "humpty dumpty" referred to a drink of brandy boiled with ale.[4] The riddle probably exploited, for misdirection, the fact that "humpty dumpty" was also eighteenth-century reduplicative slang for a short and clumsy person.[11] The riddle may depend upon the assumption that a clumsy person falling off a wall might not be irreparably damaged, whereas an egg would be. The rhyme is no longer posed as a riddle, since the answer is now so well known. Similar riddles have been recorded by folklorists in other languages, such as "Boule Boule" in French, "Lille Trille" in Swedish and Norwegian, and "Runtzelken-Puntzelken" or "Humpelken-Pumpelken" in different parts of Germany—although none is as widely known as Humpty Dumpty is in English.[4][12]


Humpty Dumpty, shown as a riddle with answer, in a 1902 Mother Goose story book by William Wallace Denslow
Poster advertising a pantomime version at the Olympic Theatre in New York 1868, starring George L. Fox

The rhyme does not explicitly state that the subject is an egg, possibly because it may have been originally posed as a riddle.[4] There are also various theories of an original "Humpty Dumpty". One, advanced by Katherine Elwes Thomas in 1930[13] and adopted by Robert Ripley,[4] posits that Humpty Dumpty is King Richard III of England, depicted as humpbacked in Tudor histories and particularly in Shakespeare's play, and who was defeated, despite his armies, at Bosworth Field in 1485.

In 1785, Francis Grose's Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue noted that a "Humpty Dumpty" was "a short clumsy [sic] person of either sex, also ale boiled with brandy"; no mention was made of the rhyme.[14]

Punch in 1842 suggested jocularly that the rhyme was a metaphor for the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey; just as Wolsey was not buried in his intended tomb, so Humpty Dumpty was not buried in his shell.[15]

Professor David Daube suggested in The Oxford Magazine of 16 February 1956 that Humpty Dumpty was a "tortoise" siege engine, an armored 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. This was on the basis of a contemporary account of the attack, but without evidence that the rhyme was connected.[16] The theory was part of an anonymous series of articles on the origin of nursery rhymes and was widely acclaimed in academia,[17] but it was derided by others as "ingenuity for ingenuity's sake" and declared to be a spoof.[18][19] The link was nevertheless popularized by a children's opera All the King's Men by Richard Rodney Bennett, first performed in 1969.[20][21]

From 1996, the website of the 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.[22] In 1648, Colchester was a walled town with a castle and several churches and was protected by the city wall. The story given was that a large cannon, which the website claimed was colloquially called Humpty Dumpty, was strategically placed on the wall. A shot from a Parliamentary cannon succeeded in damaging the wall beneath Humpty Dumpty, which caused the cannon to tumble to the ground. The Royalists (or Cavaliers, "all the King's men") attempted to raise Humpty Dumpty on to another part of the wall, but the cannon was so heavy that "All the King's horses and all the King's men couldn't put Humpty together again". Author Albert Jack claimed in his 2008 book Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes that there were two other verses supporting this claim.[23] Elsewhere, he claimed to have found them in an "old dusty library, [in] an even older book",[24] 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 of the existing rhyme, and that they do not fit with the earliest printed versions of the rhyme, which do not mention horses and men.[22]

Humpty Dumpty has become a highly popular nursery rhyme character. American actor George L. Fox (1825–77) helped to popularise the character in nineteenth-century stage productions of pantomime versions, music, and rhyme.[25] The character is also a common literary allusion, particularly to refer to a person in an insecure position, something that would be difficult to reconstruct once broken, or a short and fat person.[26]

Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass

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

Humpty Dumpty appears in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1871), a sequel to Alice in Wonderland from six years prior. Alice remarks that Humpty is "exactly like an egg," which Humpty finds to be "very provoking" in the looking-glass world. Alice clarifies that she said he looks like an egg, not that he is one. They discuss semantics and pragmatics[27] when Humpty Dumpty says, "my name means the shape I am," and later:[28]

"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 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!"

This passage was used in Britain by Lord Atkin 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.[29] It also became a popular citation in United States legal opinions, appearing in 250 judicial decisions in the Westlaw database as of 19 April 2008, including two Supreme Court cases (TVA v. Hill and Zschernig v. Miller).[30]

A. J. Larner suggested that Carroll's Humpty Dumpty had prosopagnosia on the basis of his description of his finding faces hard to recognise:[31]

"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,—" (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."

James Joyce's Finnegans Wake

James Joyce used the story of Humpty Dumpty as a recurring motif of the Fall of Man in the 1939 novel Finnegans Wake.[32][33] One of the most easily recognizable references is at the end of the second chapter, in the first verse of the Ballad of Persse O'Reilly:

    Have you heard of one Humpty Dumpty
    How he fell with a roll and a rumble
    And curled up like Lord Olofa Crumple
    By the butt of the Magazine Wall,
    (Chorus) Of the Magazine Wall,
    Hump, helmet and all?

In film, literature and music

Robert Penn Warren's 1946 American novel All the King's Men is the story of populist politician Willie Stark's rise to the position of governor and eventual fall, based on the career of the infamous Louisiana Senator and Governor Huey Long. It won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize and was twice made into a film in 1949 and 2006, the former winning the Academy Award for best motion picture.[34] 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.[35]

In 1983, an advert for Kinder Surprise featuring a realistic version of the Humpty Dumpty character (designed by Mike Quinn, who worked at the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop) and directed by Mike Portelly, was banned shortly after release, due to being highly unsettling. The advert aired only on ITV and its franchises.

In 2016 film of Alice Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty was voiced by Wally Wingert.

In the 2011 film Puss In Boots, Humpty Dumpty was voiced by Zach Galifianakis.[36]

In 2021, American band AJR released a song titled "Humpty Dumpty" on their album OK Orchestra. The song uses the nursery rhyme as a parallel for hiding one's true emotions as things, typically unpleasant, happen to the singer.

Jasper Fforde's 2005 British novel The Big Over Easy is an exercise in absurdity, in which Humpty Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III has been murdered and Detective Jack Spratt of the Nursery Crime Division is set the task of solving the mystery.

Taylor Swift references it in her song "The Archer", the fifth track on her album Lover, modifying it slightly and turning it into "all the king's horses, all the king's men, couldn't put me together again".[37]

In science

Humpty Dumpty has been used to demonstrate the second law of thermodynamics. The law describes a process known as entropy, a measure of the number of specific ways in which a system may be arranged, often taken to be a measure of "disorder". The higher the entropy, the higher the disorder. After his fall and subsequent shattering, the inability to put him together again is representative of this principle, as it would be highly unlikely (though not impossible) to return him to his earlier state of lower entropy, as the entropy of an isolated system never decreases.[38][39][40]

See also


  1. Emily Upton (24 April 2013). "The Origin of Humpty Dumpty". What I Learned Today. Retrieved 19 September 2015.
  2. Kenrick, John (2017). Musical Theatre: A History. ISBN 9781474267021. Retrieved 16 May 2020.
  3. "Humpty Dumpty". Internet Broadway Database.
  4. Opie & Opie (1997), pp. 213–215.
  5. J. Smith, Poetry Writing (Teacher Created Resources, 2002), ISBN 0-7439-3273-0, p. 95.
  6. P. Hunt, ed., International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature (London: Routledge, 2004), ISBN 0-203-16812-7, p. 174.
  7. J. J. Fuld, The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk (Courier Dover Publications, 5th ed., 2000), ISBN 0-486-41475-2, p. 502.
  8. Richards, William Carey (March–April 1844). "Monthly chat with readers and correspondents". The Orion. Penfield, Georgia. II (5 & 6): 371.
  9. 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.
  10. J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, The Nursery Rhymes of England (John Russell Smith, 6th ed., 1870), p. 122.
  11. E. Partridge and P. Beale, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 8th ed., 2002), ISBN 0-415-29189-5, p. 582.
  12. Lina Eckenstein (1906). Comparative Studies in Nursery Rhymes. pp. 106–107. OL 7164972M. Retrieved 30 January 2018 via
  13. E. Commins, Lessons from Mother Goose (Lack Worth, Fl: Humanics, 1988), ISBN 0-89334-110-X, p. 23.
  14. Grose, Francis (1785). A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. S. Hooper. pp. 90–.
  15. "Juvenile Biography No IV: Humpty Dumpty". Punch. 3: 202. July–December 1842.
  16. "Nursery Rhymes and History", The Oxford Magazine, vol. 74 (1956), pp. 230–232, 272–274 and 310–312; reprinted in: Calum M. Carmichael, ed., Collected Works of David Daube, vol. 4, "Ethics and Other Writings" (Berkeley, CA: Robbins Collection, 2009), ISBN 978-1-882239-15-3, pp. 365–366.
  17. Alan Rodger: "Obituary: Professor David Daube". The Independent, 5 March 1999.
  18. 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 0-203-16812-7, p. 76.
  19. Iona and Peter Opie, ed. (1997) [1951]. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 254. ISBN 978-0-19-860088-6.
  20. C. M. Carmichael (2004). Ideas and the Man: remembering David Daube. Studien zur europäischen Rechtsgeschichte. Vol. 177. Frankfurt: Vittorio Klostermann. pp. 103–104. ISBN 3-465-03363-9.
  21. "Sir Richard Rodney Bennett: All the King's Men". Universal Edition. Retrieved 18 September 2012.
  22. "Putting the 'dump' in Humpty Dumpty". The BS Historian. Retrieved 22 February 2010.
  23. A. Jack, Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes (London: Allen Lane, 2008), ISBN 1-84614-144-3.
  24. "The Real Story of Humpty Dumpty, by Albert Jack". Archived 27 February 2010 at the Wayback Machine, (USA). Retrieved 24 February 2010.
  25. L. Senelick, The Age and Stage of George L. Fox 1825–1877 (University of Iowa Press, 1999), ISBN 0877456844.
  26. E. Webber and M. Feinsilber, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Allusions (Merriam-Webster, 1999), ISBN 0-87779-628-9, pp. 277–8.
  27. F. R. Palmer, Semantics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edn., 1981), ISBN 0-521-28376-0, p. 8.
  28. L. Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass (Raleigh, North Carolina: Hayes Barton Press, 1872), ISBN 1-59377-216-5, p. 72.
  29. G. Lewis (1999). Lord Atkin. London: Butterworths. p. 138. ISBN 1-84113-057-5.
  30. Martin H. Redish and Matthew B. Arnould, "Judicial review, constitutional interpretation: proposing a 'Controlled Activism' alternative", Florida Law Review, vol. 64 (6), (2012), p. 1513.
  31. A. J. Larner (1998). "Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty: an early report of prosopagnosia?". Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. 75 (7): 1063. doi:10.1136/jnnp.2003.027599. PMC 1739130. PMID 15201376.
  32. J. S. Atherton, The Books at the Wake: A Study of Literary Allusions in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1959, SIU Press, 2009), ISBN 0-8093-2933-6, p. 126.
  33. Worthington, Mabel (1957). "Nursery Rhymes in Finnegans Wake". The Journal of American Folklore. 70 (275): 37–48. doi:10.2307/536500. JSTOR 536500.
  34. G. L. Cronin and B. Siegel, eds, Conversations With Robert Penn Warren (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2005), ISBN 1-57806-734-0, p. 84.
  35. M. Feeney, Nixon at the Movies: a Book About Belief (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), ISBN 0-226-23968-3, p. 256.
  36. Puss in Boots (2011) - IMDb, retrieved 30 November 2022
  37. Taylor Swift – The Archer, retrieved 2 September 2022
  38. Chang Kenneth (30 July 2002). "Humpty Dumpty Restored: When Disorder Lurches Into Order". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 May 2013.
  39. Lee Langston. "Part III – The Second Law of Thermodynamics" (PDF). Hartford Courant. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 May 2008. Retrieved 2 May 2013.
  40. W.S. Franklin (March 1910). "The Second Law Of Thermodynamics: Its Basis In Intuition And Common Sense". The Popular Science Monthly: 240.
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