What Is the Story Behind Hickory Dickory Dock?

(Last Updated On: February 27, 2020)
What Is the Story Behind Hickory Dickory Dock?

The nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock” brings back memories of simple times as a child. Can you recite it?

Hickory, Dickory, Dock
The mouse ran up the clock
The clock struck one
The mouse ran down
Hickory, Dickory, Dock

Yes, it is familiar, yet the history of this poem is far from simple. The nursery rhyme has been retold in countless versions and has delighted millions over the centuries.

The exact words of the basic poem vary. Your version may read “and down he run,” “and down he ran,” “down the mouse ran,” or “down the mouse run.” Whatever words you remember, there is more to the story of Hickory, Dickory, Dock.

Counting Out Rhyme

The sounds of the poem mimic an old clock ticking and chiming in the hall. Parents and teachers use it to introduce elementary students the basics of telling time. There are at least two different tunes for the song. One is from the UK and one is popular in the USA. 

Nineteenth-century sheep farmers in Northwest England counted their herd using Hevera(8), Devera(9), and Dick(10) from the ancient Cumbric language. Some say this counting method may, in fact, be part of the rhyme’s origin.

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Hickory Dickory Dock Origins

During the years of 1649 to 1658, Britain was ruled by Oliver Cromwell as the Lord Protector of the republic. Before he died, he encouraged Parliament to appoint his son, Richard to the post. Richard was not suited for being Lord Protector.

In contrast to his father Oliver’s nature, Richard was mouse-like and timid. He earned a number of nicknames such as Tumbledown Dick because of his abrupt fall from power when the monarchy was restored under King Charles II in 1660. A rarely heard second verse refers to “The man in brown” who “Soon brought him down.” It’s easy to translate the meaning as a reference to King Charles II who disguised himself before escaping to France during Oliver Cromwell’s rule over the republic.

Richard Cromwell only lasted nine months in his position before he resigned and left the country. Many origin stories attribute this satirical poem to Richard Oliver’s place in history. After exile in France for twenty years, Cromwell was allowed to return. King Charles no longer saw him as a threat. He died in 1712 on his estate.

18th Century Limerick

The poem was published in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book printed in 1744, London. The little book contained forty nursery rhymes, many of which are still part of child’s play today. It was spelled “Hickere, Dickere Dock” in this historic text. Over the years, many variations of both the title and the words of the poem surfaced in our culture including Dickery, Dickery Dock and Hickety Dickety Dock.

Although it is not considered a limerick by today’s definition of a humorous, sometimes bawdy, poem, it follows the poetic form of five lines in a single stanza structure and a strict rhyme scheme of AABBA. The limerick was also made popular by Edward Lear in the 19th century with his Book of Nonsense originally published in 1846.

Many versions of this original poem have additional stanzas following the structure of a limerick. Some involve other animals. Others have stanzas about all twelve hours on the clock. Still, others have more creative uses of the basic poem. 

What do you remember? Here is a longer version to spark your memory.

Related Hickory Dickory Dock Literature

Many authors have expanded the story of the famous poem. Agatha Christie borrowed the name for one of her Hercule Poirot mysteries even though it is only mentioned as a road in the story. And, in L. Frank Baum’s first children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose (c. 1897), he told a parable of a Momma Mouse and her three children Hickory, Dickory, and Dock.

Hickory, Dickory, Dock is a poem loved by many generations of English-speaking readers. Now you know the history and origin of the rhyme!

Do you find learning about nursery rhymes fun? Check out more stories about how they originated:

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