Yesterday while driving to school we sang that old nursery rhyme: This old man, he played one…He played knick-knack on my thumb… And so on. After a few verses Dani interrupted. The conversation went like this:
Daddy why is he old?
The man? I don’t know he is just old
Because he is older than me! He plays knick knack on a few things like your shoes, then he just rolls home. With his dog.
Is it his dog?
Yes. And he gives him a bone every day.
Daddy what’s a knick-knack?
It’s a, erm… thing!
Daddy, what’s a paddywhack?
It’s a… I don’t know darling. I think it’s just something the old man gives to his dog.
Like a bone?
Because I just don’t. I will find out.
Although this was a classic toddler “Why? Why? Why?” moment it did make me curious. I knew a lot of old nursery rhymes have some deep and often dark meaning. The most obvious example that springs to mind being “Ring a Ring of Roses” which is basically a medical list of symptoms for the bubonic plague (aka black death!).
There was only one option. I had to consult the all-knowing internet (yeah right!). He played knick knack? I can honestly say that I have never played knick knack. At least not knowingly. What the hell is it?
An Irish meaning?
The more I tried to find out about the song the more confusing it became. Nobody really claimed to know the answers online. There were some tales of it relating to Irish tinkers. In a nutshell here it is:
Paddy Whack supposedly meaning an Irish tinker fighting or being hit. Begging, and the man’s dog being given a bone rather than the man being given a few pennies -bla bla bla… Finally, the rolling home part either referring to living in a caravan or just getting home drunk.
I even found a website where some people tried to explain the song was a mix of sexually suggestive phrases. Knick knack supposedly having some sexual meaning. Not very likely I think. Then there is the ”give the dog a bone” line. Probably the only line in the song that could possibly have a double meaning. However, this double entendre is a relatively modern phrase and would have originated much later than this old nursery rhyme. More on that below.
The best explanation I could find claims that playing knick knack is actually another expression for playing bones. Two bones (for example sheep’s ribs) held between the fingers. One between the index and middle finger and the other bone between the middle and ring finger. Then they are basically shaken so as to clatter together. The sound produced is not unlike the Spanish castanets interestingly.
To back up this anatomical explanation the same source defined the word paddywhack as being a strong elastic ligament in sheep (again) or cattle that supports the weight of their heads. So, the rhyming link to other animal body parts probably, kind of, just about, makes it fit? Well, sort of. Paddywhack is a genuine word defined in its own right so I can more or less agree with that description of the rhyme. It certainly seems a much better explanation that the Irish one – just because the letters “Paddy” appear somewhere. Yeah; the more I think about that one the less I am buying it.
Squeeze and giving the dog a bone
Then there is the dog. Anyone over 40 will probably know of the suggestive use of “give the dog a bone” in the classic 1979 Squeeze song “Cool for Cats”. But in this nursery rhyme I am sure it simply refers to giving away one of the bones that is being played.
Finally, there is the rolling home thing. Maybe this really does mean getting home drunk. After a hard day playing the bones and singing in rhyme, why not?
So my overall summary is that the song has little or no real meaning but refers to two parts of a sheep’s body and is just a series of rhymes based (very) loosely around that. All to form a song to help kids learn to count.
Simple really. Now to explain all that to Dani….