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Wow, children do weird things
January 20, 2010 7:56 AM   Subscribe

What is the origin of "Mama had a baby and her head popped off"?

The other day, I was reminded of this fun little activity that we used to do when we were kids. You pluck a dandelion, chant "mama had a baby and her head popped off" and briskly pop the flower top of its stem. Fun and quite satisfying! But now I'm wondering where that came from. It's kind of like the ring-around-the-rosie macabre, but I can't find anything online about its origins.

And the saying is a little unclear: who's head pops off? the mother's? the baby's?

Can someone tell me where this originated? And why it is especially used with dandelions?
posted by Eicats to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I, too would like to hear more about this; I remember the chant but have no idea about its origins. I do know, however, that it is also used with narrow leaf plantains, as mentioned on this page.
posted by TedW at 8:03 AM on January 20, 2010


I'll be very interested to see if anyone can shed light on this. We did this growing up in central Massachusetts, but I always did find it a little weird.
posted by usonian at 8:12 AM on January 20, 2010


Wow, good question! After doing some searching, this meme seems to be well known throughout the United States as well as Canada. But there is no specific mention of its origin. Some people speculate it sounds like a guillotine reference from the French Revolution?
posted by Hellafiles at 8:12 AM on January 20, 2010


The consensus on Yahoo Answers is that mama is the one whose head popped off. As between mama and the baby, only mama's gender is specified, which implies that "her" refers to mama.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:20 AM on January 20, 2010


Oh I remember this. We also used to do something where you'd put the dandelion under someone's chin and say something about "Buttercup, buttercup..." I can't remember the rest.

Born and raised in Boston if that matters.
posted by jerseygirl at 8:21 AM on January 20, 2010


Hellafiles- interesting speculation. But what would that have to do with having a baby? I could let my imagination run wild and suppose that it all started with a royal that committed adultery, resulting in a child, and was summilarily executed. Thereafter, children re-enacted the execution...with readily available dandelions?

Yeah, but that's all speculation and crazy imagining on my part. I'm really hoping someone can track down the true origins


Oh, and jerseygirl, we had a thing where we would hold the dandelion under someone's chin to see if they liked butter (yes, if their chin glowed yellow). There might have been a buttercup chant with that, but I don't remember for sure.
posted by Eicats at 8:39 AM on January 20, 2010


Data point: in Michigan, 1980s, we did Momma had a baby and her head popped off and buttercup, buttercup.

We also did "do you like butter?" and rubbed a dandelion under a chin to see if it appeared yellow. I really believed it.
posted by k8t at 8:40 AM on January 20, 2010


The consensus on Yahoo Answers is that mama is the one whose head popped off.

My experiences do not agree with this. It was always clear that the dandelion was the baby when we were performing this.

Also central Mass.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:45 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Scotland, 1970s: we played it as Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off.
posted by scruss at 9:03 AM on January 20, 2010


As between mama and the baby, only mama's gender is specified, which implies that "her" refers to mama

Google confirms that some people say "her" some say "him" and some say "its." This leads me to believe that it is the baby's head popping off. Which, now that I think about it, rings true with my memory. The dandelion is the baby. The why is the mystery to me. Why!? Why!? I must know now!!!
posted by bobobox at 9:17 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


When I was growing up in MD, TN, and FL everyone I knew said, "Mama had a baby and it's head popped off." Referring to the baby.

I googled it and "mama had a baby and his head popped off" is the most popular version by about 19,000 results but just because of this song by ATMOSPHERE. If you take out atmosphere:
"mama had a baby and his head popped off" - 323 results
"mama had a baby and her head popped off" - 609 results
"mama had a baby and its head popped off" - 892 results (it's returned 247)
posted by zephyr_words at 9:19 AM on January 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't find anything on Google. This could be a good question for the "On Language" column in the NYTimes Sunday Magazine.
posted by melissasaurus at 9:27 AM on January 20, 2010


This thread on the blue might be a good starting point.
posted by tommasz at 9:30 AM on January 20, 2010


[A few comments removed, let's not wander into general playground-rhyme anecdotes here.]
posted by cortex at 9:35 AM on January 20, 2010


I'm pretty sure the neighbor kid, Keith, made it up.

I lived a mile north of Waverly, Nebraska, in the early- to mid-80s. Very close to the middle of nowhere. We said "its" and it was clear we were popping the baby's head off.
posted by etc. at 9:43 AM on January 20, 2010


It's heartening to know that so many people had this same pasttime. But...that's not helping much. Origins? Anyone?

For what it's worth, it always seemed as though it was the baby losing its head in our renditions. And I'm sure I thought it was just something another kid made up at the time. But since it was such a widespread game (game? that's not the right word...), obviously there must have been some event that started it. Just like ring-around-the-rosie. There must be!
posted by Eicats at 9:50 AM on January 20, 2010


The thing is -- the ring-around-the-rosie thing referring to the plague is a myth, made up 75ish and countless variations after the poem first appeared. Sometimes, these things just happen.
posted by brainmouse at 10:24 AM on January 20, 2010


75ish years*
posted by brainmouse at 10:25 AM on January 20, 2010


In my experience (UK, if that matters) it was always "Miss Polly had a dolly and its head popped off", and there's a longer nursery rhyme "Miss Polly Had a Dolly who was sick, sick, sick" that I always assumed was the inspiration
posted by gregjones at 10:26 AM on January 20, 2010


wow... you guys had a sick childhood ;)

When I was a kid (Lancashire, England - Mid-80s) it was:

Miss Polly had a dolly and its head popped off.

We did the dandelion thing with it too.
posted by missmagenta at 10:28 AM on January 20, 2010


Oh, and jerseygirl, we had a thing where we would hold the dandelion under someone's chin to see if they liked butter (yes, if their chin glowed yellow). There might have been a buttercup chant with that, but I don't remember for sure.

...we did that too but we did it with buttercups. It doesn't really make sense with dandelions (not that it makes much more sense with buttercups)
posted by missmagenta at 10:35 AM on January 20, 2010


I grew up in upstate NY, and we did this. It was always "Mama had a baby and its head popped off," sometimes with ghoulish "waaaah!"-type sound effects attempting to mimic the sound of a crying baby being decapitated (we were especially horrible children).

You might try seeing if Iona Opie has anything to say about it; I don't really know of very many other anthropologists/folklorists who study children's street culture.
posted by kataclysm at 10:39 AM on January 20, 2010


You might try reading about the folk process for origins to this; the short answer is probably that no one knows, and there's really no way to know, particularly with things like children's street rhymes.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:49 AM on January 20, 2010


You light want to check out the lore and language of school children http://books.google.com/books?id=sdWwHbOf4oAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=lore+and+language+of+school+children&output=html_text&cd=1
(sorry, can't get the link to work from my phone)
posted by shothotbot at 10:58 AM on January 20, 2010


It was always "Mama had a baby and its head popped off,"

Sang it like this in Connecticut, too.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:52 PM on January 20, 2010


And Pittsburgh, and now rural England!
posted by sagwalla at 1:30 PM on January 20, 2010


We always said "Miss Susie had a baby and her head popped off." Sort of a cross between the British rhyme and Eicats's rhyme, but featuring that ubiquitous star of children's playground rhymes, Miss Susie.
posted by jennyb at 2:23 PM on January 20, 2010


British Columbia, late 70s and 80s: Mama had a baby and her head poppped off. Assumed it was the mama's head.

Also, "Do you like butter?" with buttercups under the chin.
posted by acoutu at 6:00 PM on January 20, 2010


I totally forgot about 'Head Popped Off' and 'Do you like butter'. Thanks for reminding me.
posted by jasondigitized at 6:30 AM on January 21, 2010


zephyr_words, I remember "mama had a baby and the head popped off," which returns 721 hits on Google. I always assumed it was the baby's head.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:43 PM on January 21, 2010


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