Reason Behind the Rhyme: Rub-a-Dub-Dub

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London librarian Chris Roberts fills Debbie Elliott in on the three men in the tub as a series on the real meaning of nursery rhymes continues. Roberts is the author of Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

"Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Three Men In a Tub" is on the docket today. In other words, it's time for another Reason Behind the Rhyme.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: London librarian Chris Roberts joins me now from our London bureau. Chris is the author of "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown," a collection of nursery rhyme histories. Let's hear it, "Rub-a-Dub."

Mr. CHRIS ROBERTS ("Heavy Words Lightly Thrown"): Right. I'm going to do the more popular version, the better known version, first of all, which is: `Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub. And who do you think were there? The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and all jumped out of a rotten potater(ph). It was enough to make a man stare.' And this is--I mean, when I started doing the research, I did wonder if this was a gay rhyme, I have to say. I thought this might be to do with--something to do with saunas, and, perhaps sadly, it's not. But it's an example of a rhyme that's been slightly balderized.

The original version goes: `Hey, rub-a-dub, ho, rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub. And who do you think were there? The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and all of them going to the fair.' Now this version goes back to about the 14th century. And in a sense, it's bang up to date at the same time. British tabloids love stories about respectable tradesfolk doing--being caught in places they shouldn't be caught in. Today it would be perhaps a lap-dancing venue. They love celebrities being caught out. In this case, it's a fairground attraction with naked ladies, which the--can you say pooge on American radio? The upper-class, the respectable tradesfolk--the candlestick maker and the butcher and the baker--are ogling, getting an eyeful of some naked young ladies in a tub. And that's "Rub-a-Dub-Dub," essentially.

ELLIOTT: Now I'm going to ask you about different versions of these. Because in my son's nursery rhyme books...

Mr. ROBERTS: Oh, what's your son...

ELLIOTT:'s: `Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub. And who do you think they be? The butcher, the baker the candlestick maker. Turn them out, knaves all three.'

Mr. ROBERTS: Oh, that's quite interesting. I haven't come across this version here. That's interesting. Because there are versions that America and England share and some that they deviate off. And in many cases the US version, as with certain words, are actually closer to the old English than the English version we have. So the version that you've heard does suggest that they're getting up to something no good in the tub...

ELLIOTT: That's what I've always wondered.

Mr. ROBERTS: ...going back to my original thought. That's an interesting American variation that I shall look into. I shall indeed look into that.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Chris Roberts is author of "Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme." And he is the librarian at Lambeth College in south London.

Thanks again, Chris.

Mr. ROBERTS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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