Tongue twisters have been screwing up speaking abilities around the world for centuries. As entertaining as tripping over tricky terms can be, early English twisters were also used to teach pupils proper speech. In a note to teachers in his 1878 book Practical Elocution, J.W. Shoemaker reminded them of the “higher motive” of these confounding sayings: “To The Teacher—While many of the exercises … may create amusement in a class, a higher motive than ‘Amusement’ has prompted their insertion. Practice is here afforded in nearly every form of difficult articulation.”
Whether it’s selling seashells by the seashore or buying Betty Botter’s bitter butter, some of these difficult phrases go way back to when elocution was practiced as routinely as multiplication tables. Come along as we untangle the history behind a few familiar phrases. Fittingly, many tongue twister origin stories are just as knotty as the expressions themselves.
1. PETER PIPER
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A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
Peter and his famous pickled peppers first appeared in print in 1813 in John Harris’s Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation.
But as is the case with many classic tongue twisters, the rhyme itself may have already been in common use by that time (the book offered similarly formatted phrases for each letter of the alphabet, and Peter clearly got top billing).
Several spice enthusiasts have also suggested the Peter in question was based on 18th century French horticulturalist Pierre Poivre, though that connection should probably be taken with a grain of salt (or pepper, in this case).
Much like Mary Anning and her rumored seashore seashells (more on this later), Poivre’s ties to the poem, while feasible, aren’t necessarily rooted in concrete evidence. Poivre is French for “pepper,” Piper was both Latin for “pepper” and a typical British last name, and the man was known for smuggling cloves from the Spice Islands in his day, so the supposed link makes sense. As a renowned gardener, Poivre may very well have pickled peppers with those stolen cloves, but we don’t actually know for sure.
2. HOW MUCH WOOD WOULD A WOODCHUCK CHUCK?
How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?
While it likely predates her, Vaudeville performer Fay Templeton is credited with putting the woodchucking woodchuck on the map. “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” was the chorus of a number Templeton sang in 1903 in the Broadway musical The Runaways (not to be confused with the musical Runaways).
Robert Hobart Davis and Theodore F. Morse wrote Templeton’s “Woodchuck Song,” and a few years later “Ragtime” Bob Roberts covered it on his 1904 record, boosting its popularity. The tongue-tripping refrain stuck around and even inspired the title of director Werner Herzog’s 1976 documentary “How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck: Observations on a New Language” about the 13th International World Livestock Auctioneering Championship.
More recently, scholars have focused less on the origin of the phrase and more on the answer to its central question. In 1988, a fish and wildlife technician for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation made national headlines when he posited if a woodchuck could chuck wood (because they actually can’t) it would be able to chuck about 700 pounds of the stuff—but that little detail must not have fit into the linguistic flow of the original rhyme.
3. AND 4. BETTY BOTTER AND TWO TOOTERS
Betty Botter bought some butter;
“But,” said she, “this butter’s bitter!
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It will make my batter bitter.
But a bit o’ better butter
Will but make my batter better.”
Then she bought a bit o’ butter
Better than the bitter butter,
Made her bitter batter better.
So ’twas better Betty Botter
Bought a bit o’ better butter.
A tutor who tooted the flute
Tried to teach two young tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tutor,
“Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?”
Both these classic twisters can be traced to poet and novelist Carolyn Wells’s writings in the late 1890s. Betty Botter would go on to be included in Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes and both verses can be found in several variations. While we don’t know who or what exactly sparked the characters of Betty or the tutor, we do know Wells was pretty prolific in terms of her writing. Her 1902 book A Nonsense Anthology—another volume of silly linguistic gymnastics—would be her most famous, but she was also behind more than 100 other books, including mysteries and children’s stories. As if her written contributions to the American language weren’t enough, Wells was also known for donating her epic collection of Walt Whitman manuscripts and first editions to the Library of Congress.