What’s The Story Behind an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly?

(Last Updated On: July 23, 2022)

“There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” is probably one of the weirder nursery rhymes you heard as a kid, partly because it’s literally nonsense. No really, the song (or story, depending on how you consume it) is classified as a nonsense song. But where did this weird tale of an old lady swallowing progressively larger animals come from? What’s the story behind that old lady who swallowed a fly?

Nonsense and Cumulative Literature

“There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly” is not only a nonsense song, it’s also a cumulative one. Cumulative songs add verses on top of each other, getting progressively longer and longer until the end of the song. For the old lady, it’s her dying after she eats an animal that’s way too big. If you grew up anywhere near Christmas, the cumulative song you probably know best (and thought of first) is “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Just like the old lady and progressively bigger animals, the days of Christmas involve progressively more gifts. Also a lot of birds. Like 180 birds.

Cumulative songs are typically powerful memorization tools, since they just keep adding verses until the song ends. This is exactly how the more traditional versions of the song go, where she swallows a spider to catch a fly, a bird to catch the spider, a cat to catch the bird, and so on. 


Now songs that are nonsense. Nonsense songs revolve around phrases, particularly in the chorus, that don’t make much literal or logical sense. Sometimes it’s literal gibberish, like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” but in the broader context of nonsense literature it can also include things that don’t make logical sense. Which… you know, the old lady does by defying the logical convention of “a zoo does not fit inside your stomach.”

Literary nonsense started as being literally just meaningless, like “Hey Diddle Diddle” using the phrase “diddle diddle,” which doesn’t have much literal meaning ascribed to it. It became recognized around the 19th century, so that should tell you something about how old most nonsense literature is. 

Further Reading: What Is the Story Behind Hey Diddle Diddle?

As we approach the more contemporary form of literary nonsense, things start to get meta. It became about intellectual absurdity, by cramming so much meaning into something it just becomes meaningless. You know that one friend you have that sucks the fun out of a work of fiction by endlessly dissecting every single part of it to the point where everything is meaningless and you just don’t care anymore? Yeah, that’s the intention of some works of literary nonsense. Aspects meant to create meaning are put in parity with things meant to negate meaning. Some of the more well-known works of literary nonsense are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Nonsensical literature requires the liberal use of various techniques, including but not limited to: imprecision, infinite repetition, incongruity, and misappropriation. These techniques meant to create nonsense are woven throughout the piece. 

Swallowing Flies

One of the earliest writings of anything related to the old lady who swallowed a fly (and then a bunch of other animals) dates back to 1946 in Dorothy B. King’s Happy Recollections. In it she tells the story about an officer telling the story of a woman who swallowed a fly, then a cat to eat the fly, a dog to eat the cat (and more) as a performance during a Wren evening in 1943.

“One of the officers recited and I have never laughed so much as I did that night she told us about the woman who swallowed a fly and then swallowed a cat to eat that fly and a dog to eat the cat, and so on: her “swallows” each time were so realistic.”

By 1947 three different versions of the story were published in Colorado, Georgia, and Ohio. They all start with the fly and end with the old lady swallowing a horse (and dying), but the animals in between vary. 

The story didn’t become a song until 1952, when Rose Bonne and Alan Mills file copyright for the story as a song called “I Know an Old Lady.” In 1953 Burl Ives would sing it and attribute the song to being derived from an “old ballad.”

See how well you know your other nursery rhymes here.



About Kyler 685 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.