What Is the Story Behind Hey Diddle Diddle?

(Last Updated On: February 4, 2020)
What Is the Story Behind Hey Diddle Diddle?

“Hey Diddle Diddle, the cat and the fiddle, the cow jumped over the moon. Out of context, that may sound like gibberish. But in reality, most people know those lines by heart from the famous nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle. 

As children, most people are taught to recite poems without any insight into their true meanings. So, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that a lot of the nursery rhymes we remember have complex and layered origins and meanings (some are even a little on the darker side). Let’s take a closer look behind the scenes of Hey Diddle Diddle.

The Origins of Hey Diddle Diddle

The origin of the rhyme itself may be a bit confusing, as there are some elements of the work that seem to predate others. For example, the image of a cat playing a fiddle has been seen in different artwork all the way back to the Middle Ages. In addition, the expression “Hey Diddle Diddle” is recorded in some Shakespearean works. In this context, it was just a nonsense term, similar to the more widely-known expression “Hey nonny no.” 

Different plays in the 16th century also reference the “Diddle diddle” term, and the Cat and The Fiddle was a common name for inns in this era, which suggests its usage in the rhyme was carried over from the Middle Ages.

So, with this said, how did we get from a silly expression and a holdover cultural image to a world-famous nursery rhyme? 

No one is quite sure. 

The first recorded variant that is directly traceable to its modern form appeared in 1765 in London, printed as a part of Mother Goose’s Melodies. The version reads as follows:

Hey diddle diddle,
The Cat and the Fiddle,
The Cow jump’d over the Moon,
The little dog laugh’d to see such Craft,
And the Fork ran away with the Spoon.

How the fork became a dish and the dog’s role in the rhyme changed is unknown. Most of the other changes to the rhyme are just by virtue of switching from old to modern English. Today, if you were to buy a book of nursery rhymes, it would most likely look like this:

Hey, diddle, diddle,
The cat and the fiddle,
The cow jumped over the moon,
The little dog laughed to see such sport,
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

Is There More To Hey Diddle Diddle?

There are a lot of theories that have circulated regarding the deeper meaning of this classic rhyme, however, most of them have either been dispelled or are considered to be far-fetched. With that said, it’s worth examining some of the most promising theories. 

The characters embody widely known constellations

For example, the cow represents the bull Taurus, while the dog represents Canis Minor. This one might be credible because a lot of the poem does take place in the sky. 

Connections to ancient Egypt

Some examples include trying to associate the dog with the Dog star constellation and the fiddle with scarab beetles. Others try to connect this with the ancient myth of the love goddess Hathor, who is known for taking the form of cats and cows.

Being a hidden reference to Tudor politics

While there’s no concrete evidence to suggest this at all, it at least is in the same historical period the rhyme came about. In this case, the story supposedly revolves around Queen Elizabeth and lady Katherine Grey. Another theory is that the “cat and fiddle,” are a reference to Katherine of Aragon, also known as Katherine la Fidèle, King Henry VIII’s first wife.

The rhyme revolves around a pub game. 

This game involves a “cat” (trap ball) that’s played to music on a fiddle. This may be a bit more credible, seeing as there are some more suggestive stories behind other rhymes, like ring around the rosie being a reference to the Bubonic plague.

Unfortunately, because of how different customs and stories can get lost to time, we may never get a concrete meaning behind this classic rhyme. However, chances are, our children are still going to be enjoying it for many years to come. 


If you enjoyed this article, here are a few other nursery rhyme posts you can also check out:

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