What came first: Humpty Dumpty or the egg?

Humpty Dumpty
Tagged: Early Years

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

If I asked you to visualise Humpty Dumpty, chances are you would visualise an egg. A quick Google image search shows lots of different versions of Humpty Dumpty as an anthropomorphic egg. In Bookbug Sessions, I frequently use a small egg finger puppet. When I present the puppet to the children, they inevitably call him Humpty Dumpty. There’s no doubt about it – Humpty Dumpty is an egg.

Just one minor thing: nowhere in the rhyme does it explicitly state that Humpty Dumpty is an egg. We just know about his great fall and that no one could put him back together again. But yet, show someone a picture of a friendly smiling egg from any nursery rhyme book, and they’ll tell you its Humpty Dumpty.

So how did we make the jump from ambiguous rhyme to strong cultural representation? 

Doing a bit of research on the rhyme, it turns out that there are several possible explanations. Some have suggested that the rhyme ‘Humpty Dumpty’ was actually a riddle. It was never said that he was an egg because that was the answer – and let’s face it – you wouldn’t want to give away the punchline. Another explanation dates the rhyme back to 1648 and depicts Humpty Dumpty was a large cannon. When the wall supporting Humpty Dumpty was attacked, the cannon fell and could not be put back together again. While it could be true, this explanation still doesn’t make the leap as to why Humpty is now represented as an egg.

Riddles and cannons aside, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the stuff we know, and take as fact, but that’s never really explicitly stated. When working with parents and children, I’ve heard other people say “They didn’t even know Humpty Dumpty was an egg!”. Of course they didn’t – the rhyme doesn’t tell us that. Not everyone is lucky enough to have had the experience of someone sharing the rhyme with them. So what we take for granted may not be everyone’s experience. As this knowledge gets passed from family generation to family generation, it reminds us of the importance of not only sharing rhymes, but also beautifully illustrated rhyme books. 

I still can’t help but wonder what came first – Humpty Dumpty or the egg?

Tracy Lowe

Tracy Lowe is the Senior Early Years Trainer for Scottish Book Trust.