This new edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes is very similar to the original 1951 volume, which has never been out of print. Illustrations remain identical, though sadly no longer of such good quality, and footnotes are still firmly set in immediate postwar Britain, with references of Amy Johnson and Clark Gable plus a brief discussion of "Mr Churchill" in the introduction.
The rhymes, however, now often benefit from longer individual histories drawing on Iona and Peter Opie's incomparable scholarship. "Lucy Locket", for example, is accompanied this time by a racy four-liner beginning "Dolly Bushel let a fart" (first published in London, 1777). But the collection avoids material that might once have offended or that could today seem more offensive than before. Anti-papist doggerel or anti-Semitic verses, still found in print for children as late as the 1960s, have never been included. That notorious Welsh thief Taffy is acknowledged, which seems fair enough given that the use of this vicious little rhyme for Welsh-baiting is now thankfully a thing of the past.
The British have always loved nursery rhymes, and many who first bought this book could also have been searching for favourites forgotten or long unavailable. But with the lifting of postwar paper shortages, children's publishers increasingly plundered the dictionary - often without acknowledgement. The result was eventually more nursery rhyme anthologies in print than at any other time in history. With back-up from BBC children's programmes, nursery rhymes were therefore in place to make a welcome return to the infants' agenda at school and often at home too. They were, as always, also joined by newer favourites over the years, drawn from sources such as advertising slogans, Beatles songs and football chants. This is the sort of development the Opies have always understood. As they make clear, traditional nursery rhymes also originated from popular adult sources not always universally approved of at the time.
Scholars writing about the history of childhood have made less of the Opies's researches. The accurate dating of nursery rhymes is usually impossible, as befits a largely oral culture, but there is still much to be learned about former attitudes to children from this book. Lloyd de Mause, whose edited The History of Childhood has recently gone into a new edition, still believes that "the history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken". Had he looked through this dictionary he might have wished to revise so sweeping a judgement. The Opies cite evidence of affectionate games played between adults and children going back hundreds of years. The lullabies they quote, starting with an Anglo-Irish cradle song c.1315, contain unmistakably tender language as well as glimpses of a mother's distress at having to forgo sleep herself. Many nursery rhymes also include violence: children are beaten, animals are tormented and poverty and old age sometimes receive scant sympathy. The country games and pursuits they celebrate may not always be for the faint-hearted, but they still occur at a time and place where boys and girls come out to play whenever they can.
Those writing about children's literature should also pay close attention to these pages. Nursery rhymes are the most memorable poems ever to come children's way, but paradoxically only a few were written specifically for the young. They originated, instead, from adult song or rhyme sung without any particular thought or intention. Infants who were listening at the time duly imitated the best of these scraps and eventually handed them down to their own children. The result is a collection that is rarely moralistic, obvious or condescending. Children seemed fascinated by the sheer sound, rhythm and rhyme of ditties like Pop Goes the Weasel without ever bothering about its actual meaning (still disputed). Another popular, but ultimately baffling rhyme, "Goosey, Goosey, Gander", is traced by the Opies to two quite different sources at some time spliced together only because they shared the same metre. That is why there is no introduction or explanation for the old man so suddenly and arbitrarily thrown downstairs by his left leg - an event never broadcast by the BBC's Listen with Mother, for fear that young listeners might find it upsetting. Here, as elsewhere, the random violence found in nursery rhymes, far from putting infants off, seems sometimes to have been one of their most popular as well as persistent characteristics.
Children's positive response to nursery rhymes also has important implications for those school reading primers still following a dull, phonic approach at all literary costs. Phrases like "higgledy piggledy" or "highty, tighty, paradighty" may not be familiar or easy to read but stay longer in the memory than less flamboyant fare. Research suggests that these rhymes can be excellent preparation for future reading skills, with children often quick to decipher texts on the page that they already know by heart. Rhyme is also an effective way of enabling children to become conscious of words and the sounds they make.
Peter Opie died in 1982; Iona survives as the unquestioned leading authority on nursery rhymes. The couple's mastery of their subject never led to jealous conservatism; they were keen to share their own enthusiasm. Not for them the tetchy insistence on one true version of any particular rhyme. Happy to encourage diversity, the couple printed slightly different versions of some popular favourites in their later Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book. Only history will decide which changes will last, though the success so far of would-be reformers has not been encouraging. But family versions, changing a word here and there, do persist so long as there are adults with the time to pass on the rhyme.
The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes is often used to settle questions about the meaning of individual verses. Almost always the Opies show that claims for particular, coded historical references ("Ring-a-Ring O' Roses" and the Great Plague; "Humpty Dumpty" and Richard III) remain unproven. Some historical figures do appear, for example Elsie Marley, where "it is evident that the way she served her ale was not the entire cause of her fame". But the book's overriding message is that nursery rhymes survived simply because youngsters enjoyed and remembered them. What other children's literature offers such lively rhymes and sprightly rhythms, not to mention an uninhibited range of topics not always thought suitable for the very young?
Once the rhymes got into print, an oral tradition began to give way to a literary genre, with some rhymes copied from one collection to another regardless of popularity. This has led to a certain ossification in nursery rhymes, with newer ones rarely making it into modern anthologies. But the view they offer of a world of past rural amusements and occupations remains as attractive and compelling as ever.
Nicholas Tucker is lecturer in cultural and community studies, University of Sussex.
The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes
Editor - Iona Opie and Peter Opie
ISBN - 0 19 86088 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 559