Dear Straight Dope:
As a long time fan, I have long waited to see the answer to my question. To wit: Was Humpty Dumpty always pictured as an egg? The rhyme doesn't mention that he (she?) is an egg. In Alice in Wonderland he is portrayed as an egg, but doesn't the rhyme predate that?
SDStaff Dex replies:
According to Martin Gardner in The Annotated Mother Goose, the Humpty Dumpty rhyme is a riddle. Riddling rhymes were a popular source of entertainment for many centuries. The answer to the Humpty Dumpty riddle is, of course, “an egg.”
The first appearance in print, in 1810, is slightly different from the version we know today:
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
Threescore men and threescore more
Cannot place Humpty Dumpty as he was before.
Another variation that dates back at least to the early 1800s has the last two lines:
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Could not set Humpty Dumpty up again.
The best-known version today, of course, ends with the line “Could not put Humpty together again.”
Lewis Carroll’s version gives the last line as “Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty in his place again,” which, Alice observes, “is much too long for the poetry.”
Although it first appeared in print in 1810, the rhyme is certainly older, but how much older is a matter of dispute. The Oxford English Dictionary gives Humpty Dumpty as the name of an ale-and-brandy drink of the late 17th century, and also as “a short clumsy person of either sex.”
For other example of riddle rhymes, you might check out the chapter “Riddles in the Dark” in The Hobbit.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.