Rhyme and reason

16th January 1998 at 00:00
THE OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NURSERY RHYMES (second edition). Edited by Iona and Peter Opie. Oxford University Press Pounds 25. Yankee Doodle, John Jiggy Jag, Hector Protector, Nancy Cock, Old Mother Niddity Nod and other quirky characters jostle for attention in this outstanding piece of scholarship whose hallmarks are charm and erudition. No one has done more both to celebrate the oral tradition in all its wonderful variety or to give it academic rigour than Iona and Peter Opie in this and numerous other texts in the same field.

The new edition of the Opies' classic is the first since 1951 and roughly 100 pages longer. Additions include a short, informative essay on the singing tradition of nursery rhymes by Cecily Raysor Hancock, but are mainly composed of fresh discoveries about sources made by Iona Opie in the close to half-century that separates the publications.

As for the rhymes themselves, John Goldthwaite makes the point in The Natural History of Make-Believe (OUP Pounds 20) that the Dictionary is the only book in the world that everyone knows snippets of by heart. He describes nursery rhymes as "our most common cultural currency after the Bible . . . random snatches of silliness, and yet it is all here: cast, history, scenery, weather, the piecemeal world somehow arguing itself whole again in song."

The dictionary is easy to find your way around as it is arranged in alphabetical order of the best-known word in the rhyme; so there are plenty of piggies, pussycats and lads called Jack. The footnotes take up at least as much room as the verse and are as fascinating as the rhymes are delightful. A quest for a date leads, before you know it, to an hour's happy reading. It is a perfect book to browse in.

Has anything been lost? It seems carping to mention that the typography is not quite as elegant, though the small print may be easier to read. This book is not just for students of children's literature, but for anyone who has ever been a child.

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