Close, But No Cigar: British vs. American Nursery Rhymes and Childhood Games

An innocent child's game can end in utter embarrassment if  ... (PHOTO)

An innocent child’s game can end in utter embarrassment … for the adults. (Barron)

If you’re a British parent in the U.S., you’ll find it’s a veritable minefield out there. While most of us know the vocabulary differences – stroller/pushchair, diaper/nappy, etc., we’re still caught off guard at the most unexpected moments.

For example, before you attend a sing-along, you should know that “Half a Pound of Tuppeny Rice” contains completely,  and I mean completely, different lyrics? Oh yes. Something about a cobbler’s bench, a monkey and a weasel. Here they are if you don’t believe me; they make about as much sense as the British version too.

When it comes to maximum embarrassment, we have the seemingly innocent “Ring a ring a roses,” which begins “Ring around the rosies” but then continues the same. It all goes swimmingly until the bit where us Brits shout out “Atishoo, atishoo,” with all the drama of a Downton cast member, only to realize we’re the only one in the room doing it. (Oh the memories!) Americans end this song with “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” and they sing it rather than shout it, so you really draw attention to yourself doing the British version.

In other songs, the “Incy Wincy Spider” becomes “Itsy Bitsy” in the U.S. and in stories, “Chicken Licken” goes by the name of “Chicken Little,” although he still insists that the sky is falling.

Meanwhile, in the world of children’s games, we’re almost speaking a different language. The phrase “Would you like to play Noughts and Crosses?” will probably receive blank looks as it’s generally called Tic Tac Toe or X and O here. The fact that we pronounce “nought” so differently will be half the reason for the confusion, by the way. Similarly, “draughts” is known as “checkers.” Incidentally, did you know that there are many different types of draughts games? There’s International (or Polish) draughts, Brazilian draughts, Ghanaian, Canadian, Malaysian, Spanish, Italian, Czech, Argentinian, German, Thai, Myanmar and Slovak drafts, and Russian as well as American checkers.

Moving on, “Snakes and Ladders” become “Chutes and Ladders,” and the players slide down chutes (slides) rather than snakes. Cluedo, that mainstay of British family fun, is called simply “Clue” in the States. Although Americans would probably know what you were talking about, sticking a “do” (pronounced “doo”) on the end of the word “clue” often strikes my kids as rather funny. You can further impress friends and acquaintances with the fact that Cluedo is a combination of the words “clue” and “ludo,” which in Latin for “I play”. Although it was simultaneously launched in both the U.K. and the U.S. in 1949, the game was immediately marketed as Clue on this side of the Pond.

I grew up playing solitaire in the U.K., but it involved a board and pegs rather than playing cards. The card game for one person, that I called “Patience,” is “solitaire” in the U.S.

Oh, and don’t forget that the Alphabet song ends with a Zee, not a Zed!


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • KathyF

    Sometimes I give up on the idea that our two cultures will ever be able to communicate! In the American South where I grew up we said “Eensie Weensie Spider” never itsy bitsy. And I had no idea about that tuppeney rice. I guess I hang out with the wrong crowd here in the UK.

    • Mike K

      It was itsy-bitsy up north. lol

  • dp

    Cars are waiting in the yard, tackling them with ease’ll show the world what I can do, gaily boasts the Diesel…
    The Rev. Awdry has given us yet another set of lyrics! But it seems rather obvious that the difference in that rhyme is just different verses sticking in different places. I had encountered most of the alternate lyrics you discussed in various books and such as a kid, which I guess means my parents bought me British stuff and didn’t tell me? It’d explain the liberal application of Us in places they don’t belong…

  • Carol

    I also say “eensie weensie spider” and I’m from Michigan. Additionally, instead of “cobbler’s bench” I sang “all around the mulberry bush.”

    • Alex

      I also sang all around the mulberybush as a child, we also skipped the last “tuppenny rice” lyrics. I’m from the NE.

  • Caitlin

    Then there’s Duck, Duck, Goose (or Duck, Duck, Grey Duck) in the U.S. Does this game have a British equivalent, I wonder?

    • expatmum

      I had never come across it before living here.

    • georgina Phelps

      I’ve heard of it before, I used to see a few American cartoons where they’d play it but I never have.

  • ToTellTheTruth

    I’m from New York, and said “eensy weensy.”

  • Tara Story

    I remember saying “Itsy Bitsy” and “Incy Wincy” when I was a kid. Never thought about the difference.

  • Lisa Watson Barr

    We sang “Tuppeney Rice” “all around the CARPENTER’s bench” in West Texas. and we only had one verse. Maybe that’s why we didn’t call it Tuppeney Rice…we never got to that verse at all.

  • Aurelas

    Here in Northwest Florida, about half the people you meet will say “itsy bitsy” and about half will say “incy wincy” or “eensy weensy”. And the book I grew up with had Chicken Licken. I think “atishoo, atishoo!” sounds more fun for a kids’ song though. We might have to change that one. Even as a little thing I knew that “ashes, ashes, we all fall down” referred to death so that was a bit of a downer. “Snakes and Ladders” sounds like more fun too..
    I was surprised you didn’t address Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. I was taught that it goes “like a diamond in the sky” but I have seen British books that say it is “like a tea tray in the sky.” I sing it both ways now :)

    • Donna Perras

      like a tea tray in the sky is from cinderella. and i love twinkle, twinkle little bat courtesy of the door mouse.

    • expatmum

      “Atishoo” also refers to the black death or the plague, in the song, because that was apparently one of the symptoms.

  • James Kirchner

    When I was 5 in Michigan, I learned to sing that the spider was “eenty weentsy”, and I have no idea when it changed to “itsy bitsy”. The first time I heard the latter, I assumed it was just some kind of cultural encroachment from another part of the country.

  • Deborah Lehman

    If you look, you will see that most of the songs are about periods of time and what was happening in England and Europe at that time. Ring around the roses = The Black Death. Half a pound of Tuppenny rice = Food shortage/also for a celebration for the Queen (Victoria).
    Also describes the money we used at that time (until the mid 1960’s) pounds, shillings and pence (2d for 1/2 lb of rice).

    • Gill Ruehl

      Money changed in 1971…I remember both

  • Hilary

    Don’t forget Chinese Chrckers!

  • Alex

    I’m assuming “sing a song if six pence, and a pocket full of rye” is British, but does anyone know if it’s popular there? Also do any other Americans know it? It was always a favorite in my family.

    • lillirosa

      Yes, definitely. There’s even an Agatha Christie/Miss Marple novel based around it.

  • Grandma Brenda

    As my father’s side of the family were straight over from Scotland and Yorkshire and my mother’s side from Ireland, I was raised playing games from both sides of the pond. When I started school the other kids made fun of anything that was “different” and so I learned to say the American versions if I didn’t want to be bullied… though they still were bullies.

  • buurenaar

    In South Carolina, we call “Tuppenny Rice” as “Pop! Goes the Weasel”, though it’s about half-and-half as to who says “mulberry bush” and who says “carpenter’s bench”