What does “pop goes the weasel” mean?

Dear Cecil:

What does "pop goes the weasel" mean?

Cecil replies:

Who knows? It’s basically a folk song and nursery rhyme that later saw service as a music-hall ditty. It’s tough enough deciphering rock lyrics written in 1975; what do you expect with a tune going back to the 17th century? But Straight Dope curator of music Tom Miller said he’d give it his best shot.

Tom collected two dozen versions of “Pop Goes the Weasel” from both sides of the Atlantic. Many were similar, with one key difference: in North America, the opening line was generally “all around the mulberry bush,” possibly due to conflation with the similar tune “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.” In the UK, however, it was usually “all around the cobbler’s bench.” This gives us a better idea of the song’s original meaning. Most authorities think “Pop Goes the Weasel” describes the acts of weaving, spinning, and sewing. A weasel, Tom reports, was a mechanism used by tailors, cobblers, and hatters that “popped” when the spool was full of thread.

Some argue that to pop the weasel is also cockney slang meaning to pawn one’s coat. This makes sense in light of the second verse of the kids’ version: “A penny for a spool of thread / A penny for a needle / That’s the way the money goes,” etc. A version popular in 19th-century English music halls makes things even clearer: “Up and down the City Road / In and out the Eagle / That’s the way the money goes,” etc. The Eagle in question was a London tavern; clearly the lyricist was describing the consequences of spending too little time at the cobbler’s bench and too much on a barstool.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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