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.

Merriam-Webster Just Added Hundreds of New Words to the Dictionary—Here Are 25 of Them

iStock.com/xxz114
iStock.com/xxz114

The editors of Merriam-Webster's dictionary know better than most people how quickly language evolves. In April 2019 alone, they added more than 640 words to the dictionary, from old terms that have developed new meanings to words that are products of the digital age.

Entertainment fans will recognize a few of the new words on Merriam-Webster's list: Buzzy (generating speculation or attention), bottle episode (an episode of a television series confined to one setting), and EGOT (winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony) have all received the dictionary's stamp of approval.

Some terms reflect the rise of digital devices in our everyday lives, such as unplug and screen time. Other words have been around for centuries, but started appearing in new contexts in recent years. According to Merriam-Webster, snowflake can now mean “someone who is overly sensitive," purple can describe an area split between Democrat and Republican voters, and Goldilocks can mean “an area of planetary orbit in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to support life."

You can read 25 of the new words below. And for even more recent additions to the dictionary, check out Merriam-Webster's list from last September.

  1. Bioabsorbable

  1. Bottle episode

  1. Bottom surgery

  1. Buzzy

  1. EGOT

  1. Garbage time

  1. Gender nonconforming

  1. Geosmin

  1. Gig economy

  1. Go-cup

  1. Goldilocks

  1. On-brand

  1. Page view

  1. Peak

  1. Purple

  1. Vulture capitalism

  1. Qubit

  1. Salutogenesis

  1. Screen time

  1. Snowflake

  1. Stan

  1. Tailwind

  1. Top surgery

  1. Traumatology

  1. Unplug

15 Ripsniptious Faux-Educated Words of the 19th Century

London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

In his 1859 Dictionary of Modern Slang, John Camden Hotten discussed a recent craze for long, fancy-sounding made-up words. These drew, loosely and creatively, on the prefixes and suffixes of educated big words to get their point across. “Nothing pleases an ignorant person,” he writes, “more than a high-sounding term ‘full of fury.’ How melodious and drum-like are those vulgar coruscations … what a ‘pull’ the sharp-nosed lodging-house keeper thinks she has over her victims if she can but hurl such testimonies of a liberal education at them when they are disputing her charges, and threatening to ABSQUATULATE!”

Though an educated person could sneer at the "vulgar" corruption of Latin-inspired word formation rules, few could deny their delicious mouth-feel, the genius rhythm with which they rolled off the tongue. Most of the terms came and went in the way that slang does, but a few were so melodious and apt that they became a part of our permanent vocabulary. Here are 15 of the most ripsniptious faux-educated words of the period.

1. Absquatulate

This word, popular in the 1830s, meant to make off with something. It vaguely calls up abscond, but in a longer and more complicated way. There was also an alternate term absquatualize and the noun abscotchalater, meaning thief.

2. Rambunctious

This familiar term also emerged in the U.S. around 1830 and was probably formed off the earlier rumbustious.

3. Bloviate

Bloviate, a combination of blow and orate, goes back to the 1850s. It was widely popularized in the early 1900s by President Warren G. Harding, who was known for his long, windy speeches.

4. Discombobulated

This word for a feeling of uncomfortable confusion started in the 1820s as discombobberate. There was also a noun conbobberation, used to refer to some kind of disturbance.

5. Explaterate

The –ate suffix was a particular favorite in these words. Explaterate, a bit like explain and a bit like prattle, meant talk on and on in the 1830s.

6. Teetotaciously

A much more forceful and enjoyable way to say "totally."

7. Exflunctify

"To drain" or "wear out." An activity could exfluncticate you and leave you worn out or exflunctified—or even worse, teetotaciously exflunctified.

8. Obflisticate

Obliterate is a perfectly fine word of proper standing, but its substitute obflisticate somehow makes the obliteration seem more complete.

9. Ripsniptious

Snappy, smart, heart-filling and grand. “Why, don’t you look right ripsniptious today!”

10. Bodaciously

Our modern sense of bodacious as "excellent" didn’t come about until the 1970s, but in the 1830s, bodaciously was used as an exaggerated way to say bodily. If you weren’t careful out there in the wilderness, you could get “bodaciously chewed up by a grizzly bear.”

11. Discumgalligumfricated

Louise Pound, founder of the journal American Speech, recorded this glorious creation, meaning “greatly astonished but pleased,” in her notes on the terms used by her students at the University of Nebraska in the early 1900s.

12. Ramsasspatorious

This word for "excited, anxious, impatient" makes you feel all three at the same time.

13. Slantingdicular

If something can be perpendicular, why not slantingdicular (also written as slantindicular)? This one, first seen in the 1840s, deserves a comeback.

14. Dedodgement

Old dialect descriptions note this as a Kentucky term for "exit."

15. Explicitrize

H.L. Menken’s The American Language records explicitrize as a word for "censure."

This list was first published in 2015.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER