‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ is an English nursery rhyme and a singing game that is believed, like most nursery rhymes, to date back to the 18th century. The tune was created first, as a popular dance among all levels of English society, with words coming later. It crossed into America in the 1850s, where the lyrics changed into a distinctly American version, as is often the case.
Lines like “The preacher kissed the cobbler’s wife” were replaced in some places with “the monkey stopped to pull up his sock” or “The monkey chased the people / And after them in double haste.” One iteration of the song comes from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of her father’s preferred lyrics. The stanzas read:
Pop Goes the Weasel Nursery RhymeAll around the cobbler's bench,The monkey chased the weasel.The preacher kissed the cobbler's wife—Pop! goes the weasel!A penny for a spool of thread,Another for a needle,That's the way the money goes—Pop! Goes the weasel!
Some stanzas say “Half a pound of tuppence rice” rather than “A Penny for a spool of thread” or “The monkey chased the weasel” rather than “Half a pound of treacle.” Today, in America, “cobbler’s bench” has been replaced by “mulberry bush,” a change which is perhaps connected to another nursery rhyme, ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.’ Today, the tune is still a popular nursery rhyme and children’s song. It is also commonly used in Jack-in-the-box toys.
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Meaning of Pop Goes the Weasel
The best-known line of the song, which is also the title, is one of the only parts that has remained the same throughout the decades and iterations. Many different possible interpretations of its meaning and origin have been discussed. For example, that the weasel is a hatter’s tool, a tailor’s flat iron, or truly a dead weasel. Other possibilities include that the phrase “pop goes the weasel” is actually slang for pawing one’s coat to buy food.
Other money-related images can also be found in the various versions. For example, “monkey on the house” is slang for a mortgage. The second stanza and its references to food and payment are also suggestive of someone down on their luck, eating cheaply. Interestingly, the lyrics have always been regarded as obscure. Iona and Peter Opie, who wrote and published The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, reported that no one, even at the time the song was first being played at gatherings, knew what the lyrics meant.
‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ has been played as a children’s singing game since the 19th century. Children sing the first line while dancing around rings. One player more than the number of rings on the ground is included, meaning that when they rush to new rings and one person is left out. The game is quite similar to musical chairs.
Origins of Pop Goes the Weasel
Records indicate that ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ was played at dances in England in the mid-1850s. It was tabled as “country dance” that was likely meant to be an entertaining conclusion to the evening. Another record from the same year cites dance lessons for “Pop Goes the Weasel” in December. It even seems to have been played at “her Majesty’s and the Nobility’s private soirées.” It was apparently a success and began quite popular. The tune, which is just as famous as the lyrics, seems to have been created first. The words were added later.
The British Library has a copy of sheet music that describes the song as “Pop! Goes the Weasel” and “An Old English Dance, as performed at Her Majesty’s & The Nobilities Balls, with the Original Music.” The dance is detailed and entertaining.
Analysis of Pop Goes the Weasel
All around the Mulberry Bush,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey stopped to pull up his sock,
Pop! goes the weasel.
In the first stanza of this well-known American version of ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ the singers describe a “Mulberry Bush” or a type of berry. It might be related to another nursery rhyme, ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, ’ which was also popular at the time the song came to America.
Next, it comes the monkey and the weasel. These lyrics don’t make a great deal of sense, and it’s likely that they weren’t supposed to. While one lyrical version of the song may have existed at some point, the lyrics have changed so much at this point that they are closer to nonsense than any kind of story. The perfect rhymes in these lines are similar to those found in other children’s poetry and music. It is preferable to have as many rhyming words as possible so that a child stays engaged with the music. Without them, the song is harder to remember and less fun to sing. The word “Pop!” in the fourth line of the stanza is perfectly placed for children to act out of the motion—to jump as though they too are the “weasel.” It’s at this “pop” in the song that Jack-in-the-box toys often spring to life.
Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
Mix it up and make it nice,
Pop! goes the weasel.
The second stanza of the ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ is somewhat less cryptic than the first, but it doesn’t obviously relate to what’s happened before. Now, the singers describe buying “rice” and “treacle,” or in other versions buying “a spool of thread” and “a needle.” Either way, money is being spent, and the weasel pops again at the end. The heavy references to money in the second stanza have led some to consider the entire song as one about finances. There are some vague slang-like words in the first stanza that might also support this conclusion.
Similar Nursery Rhymes
Readers who enjoyed learning about ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ should also consider reading about some other popular nursery rhymes. For example, ‘London Bridge is Falling Down,’ ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider,’ and ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.’ The latter was printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Songbook in 1744. It describes a beautiful woman in her garden, surrounded by blooming flowers and “pretty maids.” ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider,’ like almost all nursery rhymes, has an unclear origin. It can also be performed as a singing game. ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ is another popular nursery rhyme, one that has several different possible meanings. The “fair lady” in the poem might be Matilda of Scotland, a consort to Henry I, Eleanor of Provence, a consort of Henry II, or several other possible historic women.