Why Pop?

Here’s a nice bit of folklore for you. If you were a child (I never was), you no doubt heard the nursery rhyme ‘Pop Goes the Weasel.’ But, ha ha, did you know that it originates in Hoxton? I know, it took me by surprise. Apart from anything else, I thought Hoxton was only founded about ten years ago.

Anyway, the version you’re probably familiar with goes:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,

Half a pound of treacle,

That’s the way the money goes –

Pop goes the weasel!

It makes about as much sense as most nursery rhymes, i.e. almost none. How about if we take a look at the original lyrics?

Up and down the City Road,

In and out the Eagle,

That’s the way the money goes –

Pop goes the weasel!

Actually, that one doesn’t make much sense either on first reading. In fact, it looks like our protagonist is wandering around Hoxton in search of animal-based depravity of the lowest and most unspeakable nature.

However, the lyrics may be translated thus. Firstly, the City Road is, of course, in Hoxton (it runs roughly between Angel and Old Street Underground stations). The Eagle is not a perverted raptor, but a public house. Now it’s starting to make sense.

So, so far we have a protagonist trolling up and down the City Road and in and out of the Eagle, and that is the way the money goes. Now, that last line is still very silly. I’ve heard several explanations for it. Folk historians generally seem to agree that “pop” was slang for pawning or otherwise offering something up as collateral. The weasel is disputed. Pamela Shields’ mini-encyclopedia Essential Islington has it that “weasel” is a word for a flat-iron, but Albert Jack’s Pop Goes the Weasel asserts that it’s rhyming slang for “coat”, being short for “weasel and stoat.” One explanation suggests that the whole thing is a metaphor for the Gunpowder Plot, but this is just silly. And yet another explanation says that the whole thing is nonsense.

So really, pick an explanation. The rhyme first appeared in the mid-19th century, the pub having been opened in 1825. Even then, nobody was quite sure what it was on about. Something about not being a wino, I suppose.

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Filed under 19th century, Booze, Buildings and architecture, Geography, History, Islington, Literature, London, Music, Shoreditch, The City

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