The Origins of Your Favorite Tongue Twisters

2 min read

They’ve been tripping you up since you were a tot (try saying that three times fast), but tongue twisters have been around for a lot longer than that. Even if you can't make it through them without stumbling, you can still show off your knowledge of the origin stories of a few of the most commonly known tongue twisters.

She sells seashells by the seashore

This classic tongue twister has been attributed to English fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist Mary Anning. However, an in-depth article on the true origin notes the earliest known printing of it was in an 1855 English primer. The phrase continued to be adapted and evolved in a number of educational textbooks for several decades, until singer Terry Sullivan dropped it into a folk song that broke big. As with most folklore, someone, somewhere attributed Sullivan’s song to Mary Anning, and the myth stuck. This pioneering woman’s accomplishments are an unusual footnote to this tricky saying.

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

The origin of this cheeky phrase (trying asking Siri on your phone) comes from an early 20th-century song written by Robert Hobart Davis and Theodore F. Morse as part of a musical comedy that ran on Broadway in New York City. The song was carried beyond the theater district’s borders thanks to sheet music and phonograph records. For the record, in the 1980s, a wildlife conservation officer named Richard Thomas attempted to provide an answer to the question: it's approximately 700 pounds of wood … if, of course, a woodchuck decided it wanted to chuck wood at all.

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers

Much like “She sells seashells,” this tongue twister comes from an English school primer in the 1800s. This particular collection, titled Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation (1813), had one tongue twister for every letter of the alphabet to ensure ideal elocution. Peter Pepper is the anglicized version of Pierre Poivre, a French horticulturist and pirate known for raiding Dutch spices and plants. The two are often historically linked thanks to their gardening habits.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream

This may be one of the easier tongue twisters out there, but it’s got a complicated history. In the early 1900s, American ice cream purveyors began using the phrase to promote their cool treats. But the phrase didn’t become as popular as mint chip until the 1920s, when musicians Howard Johnson, Billy Moll and Robert King wrote a song of the same name, which was further popularized in a jazz standard cover in the ’40s.

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