The meaning of Humpty Dumpty has remained mysterious for centuries, but there are some possible historical explanations for the nursery rhyme.
Most people learned this popular nursery rhyme as children: 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. But what does the rhyme about Humpty Dumpty mean, exactly?
While most envision the character as an egg, thanks to contemporary depictions, the truth behind Humpty Dumpty is a bit murkier. The rhyme may refer to clumsy drunks, or it may have its roots in English history.
We all know what happened to Humpty Dumpty on the wall. These are some theories of how he got up there.
The Origins Of The Popular Nursery Rhyme
The Humpty Dumpty rhyme first emerged in 1797 when it was recorded by Samuel Arnold, an English composer and organist. From there, American Songwriter reports that it was included in National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs (1870) and performed in a Broadway production.
These early versions of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme were slightly different from the one most people recognize today, however. The 1797 version went:
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.
Whereas a slightly later version read:
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.
Significantly, neither of these earlier versions depict Humpty Dumpty as an egg. That didn’t come until 1871, when Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass presented him as an egg-like character for the first time.
“…the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was Humpty Dumpty himself,” Carroll wrote. “‘It can’t be anybody else!’ she said to herself. ‘I’m as certain of it, as if his name were written all over his face.'”
So what did these rhymes about Humpty Dumpty mean? If not originally an egg, then what was he? The answer might lie in old English slang
The Literal Meaning Of Humpty Dumpty
As History Daily writes, the phrase “humpty dumpty” wasn’t just invented as a funny turn of phrase. It comes from the 17th and 18th centuries, when “humpty dumpty” referred to someone who was overweight and clumsy.
What’s more, the phrase could also refer to a strong, 18th-century alcoholic drink. Back then, a “humpty dumpty” was a drink made by boiling brandy and ale.
Given that the meaning of Humpty Dumpty was once both a drink and an overweight, clumsy man, some have speculated that the original nursery rhyme refers to an overweight drunk who fell off a wall. In this version, Humpty Dumpty might simply have been too drunk and clumsy to get back up “where he was before.”
Is this the true Humpty Dumpty story? Perhaps, but the nursery rhyme may also be a callback to one of two important events in English history.
Historical Meanings Of Humpty Dumpty
Humpty Dumpty may be largely seen as an unlucky egg today, but it’s possible that the phrase is actually a reference to King Richard III, a 15th-century monarch, or to the English Civil War, which started in 1642.
King Richard came to power through questionable means in 1483, when he is said to have locked his two young nephews — the legal heirs to the English throne — in the Tower of London, and possibly even had them killed. His stint as king was short-lived, however, as Henry Tudor defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
So, what does King Richard III have to do with the Humpty Dumpty origin story? “Humpty Dumpty” may have been a cruel name for the king, who suffered from scoliosis and a hunched back. What’s more, his horse’s name at the Battle of Bosworth Field was allegedly “Wall,” and Richard reportedly fell from his horse during the battle.
Since the king died on the battlefield, his men would have been unable to put him back “together again.”
Yet it’s also possible that the true Humpty Dumpty meaning has to do with a different period in English history, the English Civil War, which took place between 1642 and 1651.
During that conflict, legend states that a cannon dubbed “Humpty Dumpty” was mounted on the walls protecting the town of Colchester, which was held by forces loyal to the king. As they battled with Parliamentarians, the cannon purportedly fell from the wall and shattered. And thus the “king’s men” couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together.
Did one of these events lead to the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme? Today, it’s unclear. Maybe Humpty Dumpty was a clumsy, chubby drunk; maybe Humpty Dumpty was meant to represent the English king or an important English battle. Or maybe someone just thought the words sounded funny put together and jotted down a rhyme.
Whatever the true meaning of Humpty Dumpty, the nursery rhyme has certainly proved its staying power. After emerging more than 200 years ago, it seems to be as popular as ever.
After reading about the meaning of Humpty Dumpty, discover the grisly meaning behind the popular children’s rhyme “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” Or, go inside the strange question of whether or not the true story of the Muffin Man has to do with a London serial killer.