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Where Did Famous Tongue-Twisters Come From?

Most people have a love-hate relationship with tongue-twisters: they love the ones they can speed through without fault but hate the more challenging ones. There’s also plenty of sentimental value to these fun but challenging rhymes. We can certainly recall how our parents or teachers told us stories about Peter Piper’s pickled peppers and wood-chucking woodchucks as a way to practice our articulation, or just for fun. And our generation is certainly not the first to do so.
Many of these tricky rhymes have centuries-long histories full of unexpected twists and turns - not unlike the acrobatics our tongue goes through in order to pronounce them. Learn all about the origins of 5 well-known tongue twisters in this language history article.

1. She Sells Seashells

The Origins of Tongue-Twisters She Sells Seashells
Did you know that the “she” referred to in this famous tongue-twister is based on a real historical figure?
The woman in the rhyme is said to be the 19th-century English paleontologist and fossil hunter Mary Anning. From a young age, Mary learned to find shells and fossils and sell them to tourists and rich aristocrats with her dad and brother. Her career as a fossil hunter rose to international prominence when she unearthed the remains of a Plesiosaurus and a Pterosaurs, which ultimately made scientists first consider the possibility of animal extinction years before Darwin’s Theory of Evolution was ever written.
Given that very little is known about early Victorian paleontologists, we will probably never know for sure if the tongue-twister in question was indeed coined to honor Mary’s career. However, the author Paul J. McCartney suggests exactly that in his 1977 biography of Henry De la Beche Observations on an Observer. Henry De la Beche was a notable geologist who worked with Anning and created illustrations of the fossils she had unearthed.

2. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?

The Origins of Tongue-Twisters How much wood would a woodchuck chuck?
We all know that woodchucks don’t chuck wood, but what about the tongue-twister? Where does it come from? The rhyme about the fictional woodchuking woodchuck is a reference to the famous song from the early 20th-century.
Written by Robert Hobart Davis and Theodore F. Morse, the song was part of a Broadway musical comedy titled The Runaways. Performed by Fay Templeton, the chorus of the song went just like the rhyme we all know: How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? The Vaudeville performance was picked up by a 1904 record called Ragtime by Bob Roberts, and from there, the song gained immense popularity.

3. Betty Botter

Betty Botter bought some butter;
“But,” said she, “this butter's bitter!
If I put it in my batter
It will make my batter bitter.
But a bit o' better butter
Will but make my batter better.”

Then she bought a bit o’ butter
Better than the bitter butter,
Made her bitter batter better.
So 'twas better Betty Botter
Bought a bit o’ better butter.

Although we will never know the identity of Betty Botter, we can say with certainty that the poem itself belongs to the author and poet Carolyn Wells. A prolific American writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Wells had written 100 books in her lifetime. She is best known for her humorous verses, children’s books, and popular mysteries.

How come it was the silly Betty Botter rhyme that gained mass popularity? The tongue twister was added to Mother Goose’s collection of nursery rhymes in the mid-20th century, and it had appeared in several editions since.

4. I scream, You Scream…

This may be one of the simplest tongue-twisters out there, but it has a pretty convoluted history. Historical records track the rhyme to a freezer advertisement dating all the way back to 1905. The ad went as follows: “I Scream, You Scream, We all Scream for Ice Cream! This is certainly Ice Cream Weather. Have you a good Ice Cream Freezer?”
The Origins of Tongue-Twisters I scream, You Scream…

While it’s likely that similar puns were made prior to this quirky freezer ad, it wasn’t actually the advertisement that brought the rhyme to the wider audience. That credit goes to the 1927 song I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream by the musicians Howard Johnson, Billy Moll, and Robert King. In the 1940s, the song became a jazz standard, further cementing the phrase in the public consciousness.

Related Article: 10 Tough Tongue Twisters

5. Peter Piper

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers;
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

Certainly one of the most famous tongue-twisters out there, the Peter Piper rhyme is also among the oldest on this list. Historians trace the phrase back to the 1813 book aptly titled John Harris's Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation.

A popular legend ties the poem to an 18th-century botanist and horticulturalist named Pierre Poivre. The Frenchman’s last name - Poivre - is literally French for “pepper,” whereas the Latin word for pepper is piper. Moreover, Poivre is remembered in history for obtaining and smuggling spices from the Dutch Spice Islands and introducing spice plants to various places around the world. So the connection between the rhyme and the famous gardener is certainly strong. Still, it’s difficult to say if the rhyme was indeed dedicated to Poivre since we have no written record to confirm it.

6. Pad kid poured curd pulled cod

Not familiar with this one? Many people aren’t as it’s a fairly recent tongue-twister developed by MIT scientists in 2013. Why would researchers from MIT bother inventing rhymes? Well, they claim that it’s the world’s toughest rhyme to pronounce, especially several times in a row.

According to the researchers, the rhyme is notoriously difficult to pronounce because it combines both alliteration (the same letter at the beginning of adjacent words) and words that contain similar sounds - so it’s not only difficult to pronounce but also tricky for the brain to process.

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