Pop, ejaculated the weasel

I set it off with my 3/11 posting on “Ejaculatory pop”, about the vivid ejaculatory V and N pop. On ADS-L the next day, Larry Horn cracked:

And it does add a whole new perspective on that hanky-panky between monkey and weasel in the neighborhood of that mulberry bush…

And then the discussion branched into dispute over what the right words were for the nursery rhyme/song “Pop Goes the Weasel” and what the words meant (everybody wants texts to tell coherent stories, and that applies even to nursery rhym — despite their frequent bizarrenesses). There’s a nice Wikipedia page on the subject, which is good on the variant words and on the interpretations, most of which are ingenious inventions.

There are two constants in all of this: the title “Pop Goes the Weasel” and (with only slight variations) the tune:


Everything else is variable, though a monkey opponent of the weasel eventually became another constant.

Notes of the weasel, first from Wikipedia:

In English-speaking areas, weasel can be a disparaging term, noun or verb, for someone regarded as sneaky, conniving or untrustworthy. [AZ: Presumably, from the ability of weasels, and ferrets, to get into and out of narrow, tight spaces (they are slippery creatures); and because of the reputation of weasels as predators of poultry.] Similarly, “weasel words” is a critical term for words or phrasing that are vague, misleading or equivocal.

And from A-Z Animals (very lightly edited):

Within their territory, weasels [genus Mustela, including also stoats/ermine, ferrets, polecats, and minks] are known to make nests in crevices, tree roots and abandoned burrows which are lined with grass and fur and are where the Weasel is able to safely rest. Weasels are incredibly strong and powerful for their size and are able to catch and kill animals that are much larger than themselves, before carrying it back to their burrow. In order to make sure that they have the best view of their surroundings, weasels are known to sit up on their hind legs exposing their white underside. [AZ: note that they pop up out of their nests and also pop up on their hind legs to survey their surroundings.]

The weasel is an everyday wild creature in the UK and North America, but the monkey is an exotic; it’s symbolic of playfulness, high spirits, energy, curiosity, unpredictability — and also of blackness (and otherness). Meanwhile, “The signifying monkey is a character of African-American folklore that derives from the trickster figure of Yoruba mythology” (link).

An Anthony Newley riff on the song, from the Monte Carlo Show on tv (broadcast from Monaco in the US in 1980, in the UK in 1981 and 1982), can be viewed here. (Notes on this version will appear below).

From the Wikipedia entry, with some comments of mine:

“Pop! Goes the Weasel” is an English nursery rhyme and singing game. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 5249. The jack-in-the-box children’s toy often plays the melody.

There are many different versions of the lyrics to the song. In England, most share the basic verse:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

… The song seems to have crossed the Atlantic in the 1850s, where U.S. newspapers soon afterwards call it “the latest English dance”, and the phrase “Pop! goes the weasel” soon took hold. The remaining words were still unstable in Britain, and as a result some of the U.S. lyrics are significantly different and may have an entirely different source, but use the same tune. The following lyric was printed in Boston in 1858:

All around the cobbler’s house,
The monkey chased the people…
In 1901 in New York the opening lines were:
All around the chicken coop,
The possum chased the weasel…

The most common recent version was not recorded until 1914. … American versions often include some of the following:

All around the mulberry bush,
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey stopped to pull up his sock, (or The monkey stopped to scratch his nose)
Pop! goes the weasel…

[AZ: Note the nose, which often serves as as phallic symbol – beak in the Newley version – plus Newley’s final double entendre “Would you excuse me for a minute; I’m just going to pop my weasel”]

Contemporary verses in the United States include these:

All around the mulberry bush, (or cobbler’s bench) (or carpenter’s bench)
The monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey thought ’twas all in good fun, (or ’twas all in good sport) (or that it was a joke) (or it was a big joke) (or twas all in fun)
Pop! goes the weasel.

[AZ: Still another version, with a variant in the Newley clip:

Every night when I go out the monkey’s [Newley: weasel’s] on the table.
Take a stick and knock it off.
Pop goes the weasel.]

… Perhaps because of the obscure nature of the various lyrics there have been many suggestions for what they mean, particularly the phrase “Pop! goes the weasel”, including: that it is a tailor’s flat iron, a dead weasel, a hatter’s tool, a spinner’s weasel used for measuring in spinning, a piece of silver plate, or that ‘weasel and stoat’ is Cockney rhyming slang for “throat”, as in “Get that down yer Weasel” meaning to eat or drink something. An alternative meaning involves pawning one’s coat in order to buy food and drink, as “weasel” is rhyming slang for “coat” and “pop” is a slang word for “pawn”

… Other than correspondences, none of these theories has any additional evidence to support it, and some can be discounted because of the known history of the song. Iona and Peter Opie observed that, even at the height of the dance craze in the 1850s, no-one seemed to know what the phrase meant.

Notes on the word pop (unlikely to have been ejaculatory in the original, but always available for double entendres). Of all the entries in NOAD2, the most relevant one is:

adverb pop: with a light explosive sound: the champagne went pop.

(because of the syntax, with the sound-reporting verb go, as in He went “Waaah” or “Waah!” went the naughty boy.)

The remaining possibly relevant entries for the verb pop:

1 [1a] [no obj.] make a light explosive sound: corks popped, glasses tinkled, and delicate canapés were served; [1b] [with obj.] cause (something) to burst, making a pop: they were popping balloons with darts; [1c] (of a person’s ears) make a small popping sound within the head as pressure is equalized, typically because of a change of altitude; [1e] [with obj.] heat (popcorn or another foodstuff) until it bursts open; [1f] (of a person’s eyes) bulge or appear to bulge when opened wide, especially as an indication of surprise.

2 [2a] [no obj.] go somewhere, typically for a short time and often without notice: she popped in to see if she could help; [2b] [with obj.] put or move (something) somewhere quickly: he popped his head around the door

4 [with obj.] informal take or inject (a drug): people who obsessively drink and pop pills.

5 [with obj.] Brit. informal pawn (something).

have (or take) a pop at: informal, chiefly Brit. attack physically or verbally.

pop the question: informal propose marriage.

pop up: appear or occur suddenly and unexpectedly: these memories can pop up from time to time [AZ: used especially of a jack-in-the-box]; Computing (of a browser window) appear without having been requested, especially for the purpose of advertising. [AZ: not relevant to the nursery rhyme, but entertaining because of its metaphoric connection to the earlier uses]

Yesterday on ADS-L, John Baker summarized the state of pop-weasel-monkey affairs as he saw them:

Probably the “weasel” doesn’t mean anything, in any reasonable objective sense.  “Pop Goes the Weasel” emerged in late 1852 and was an immediate international sensation, starting in Great Britain and quickly moving to Australia and America.  There is some evidence that initially it did not have words, other than the title.  There was broad and early confusion as to its meaning, even as more verses were being written and becoming popular.  This suggests that someone came up with a nonsense phrase, “pop goes the weasel,” that matched up to a key portion of the music, then other people wrote words to accompany it.

If there is a meaning, it probably has something to do with money.  A number of the key verses refer to money, frequently including the key line, “That’s the way the money goes.” [AZ: which I’ve largely sidelined here, in favor of the pop connection]

Wikipedia suggests the possibility of a connection to a spinner’s weasel:  “A spinner’s weasel consists of a wheel which is revolved by the spinner in order to measure off thread or yarn after it has been produced on the spinning wheel. The weasel is usually built so that the circumference is six feet, so that 40 revolutions produces 80 yards of yarn, which is a skein. It has wooden gears inside and a cam, designed to cause a popping sound after the 40th revolution, telling the spinner that she has completed the skein.”  Interesting, but I suspect it’s no more than a coincidence.  I think the protagonist is generally understood to be a male cobbler, not a female spinner.

Since then, other posters have deepened the historical background considerably, especially in connection with the dance with which things seem to have started.

Bonus. In searching for illustrations for this posting, I stumbled upon this cartoon, which turns on the fact that Spanish papas con chorizo ‘potatoes with chorizo [sausage]’ fits the crucial (tetrameter) line of the song just as well as pop goes the weasel:


(The style is familiar, but I haven’t identified the cartoonist.)

While there is a possible double entendre here, I doubt that anyone would get it: papas con chorizo is a hearty Mexican breakfast dish (essentially chorizo hash; add an egg on top), familiar and homey:


6 Responses to “Pop, ejaculated the weasel”

  1. John Baker Says:

    Interesting as always. Further ADS-L posts add quite a bit to this, including the likelihood that the “pop” originated as a dance action.

    The cartoon above is a panel from the newspaper comic strip Frazz.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    Ah, Frazz. Thanks.

    I agree that the ADS-L posters should assemble their material into a journal article. Lovely stuff.

  3. Robert Coren Says:

    I learned the “cobbler’s bench” version as a child; I suspect the “mulberry bush” variant was influenced by the different (but melodically somewhat similar) nursery tune Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush.

  4. Bigmacbear Says:

    Then of course there’s Robin Williams’ riff on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood where he says (in imitation of Fred Rogers’ voice):

    Let’s put Mr. Hamster in the microwave!
    He knows where he’s going.
    BEEP! Pop goes the weasel.

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