Kids know the darndest things
December 3, 2006 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Where do all those (American?) childhood memes come from? Who wrote the "Miss Lucy had a steamboat" song? Who was the first person to punch people when they saw VW Beetles?

I, for one, learned most all of it from my older sisters, who were born in the early seventies. My mother has said she recognizes the tune to Miss Lucy, but not the words, indicating it might be a much older children's song, re-invented for different generations. Miss Mary Mac? Tiny Tim? Who are those folks? Where does all this stuff come from? Where can I read more about its origins? (If not too chat-filtery, where did YOU learn this stuff?)
posted by one_bean to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Iona Opie has done a lot of work on Children's street culture, as have many other writers.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 9:56 AM on December 3, 2006

Thanks so much for asking this question, I completely forgot that I wanted to (the "diarrhea song" came up in conversation the other day...hmmm...maybe that's TMI).
posted by unknowncommand at 11:13 AM on December 3, 2006

Who was the first person to punch people when they saw VW Beetles?

Good Christ, I had no idea there was such a tradition. Now I'm curious to see how far back it goes. So thanks for asking!
posted by languagehat at 11:27 AM on December 3, 2006

I was born in the 60s and remember the Miss Lucy song.

I assumed the VW thing came from "slug bug"--maybe it's a slang? I grew up in the midwest and hadn't heard of slugging someone when they saw a "bug" until moving to California.
posted by 6:1 at 11:35 AM on December 3, 2006

I think scouting/summer-camps is the main source of renewal for much of this children's culture.

If you are sitting around a campfire, you can only sing "kumbaya" so many times. So someone starts singing about old ladies stuck in a lavatory. It lends the activity a certain edginess that would frowned upon in a public school music class.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 11:35 AM on December 3, 2006

Punching when seeing a VW was called "punch buggy" when I was growing up in Maryland in the 1970s. We also had to punch the ceiling when a car with one burned-out headlight came into view -- according to Wikipedia this is called "padiddle" but I honestly don't remember the word.
posted by escabeche at 11:53 AM on December 3, 2006

Funny, I'm also MD from the 1970s and we did "punch buggy" as kids, "pididdle" as teens, but we'd just say piddile and point. We would touch the ceiling of a car when going through a yellow light.
posted by underwater at 11:57 AM on December 3, 2006

I was a child in the late 80s early 90s and remember doing exactly what escabeche said, and yes it is called padiddle.

Everyone also had to hold their breath when we drove past cemeteries.

Unfortunately, I have no idea where any of that came from.
posted by comatose at 12:01 PM on December 3, 2006

My mother (b. 1944) recalls ducking or lifting her feet off of the floor while driving under or over a moving train, so her head/feet wouldn't be lopped off.
posted by pullayup at 12:07 PM on December 3, 2006

Growing up on the eastern coast of canada in the late 70's and early 80's we often went camping on the weekends. Most of the campgrounds had "hayrides" for the younger kids. A farm tractor would pull a haywagon around the grounds as kids sang these types of songs, usually led by one of the capground staff. We also had the "punchbuggy" tradition, and we held our breathe going ove bridges, not passing cemetaries.

When we had kids "from away," the song leaders would try to learn rhymes from them and teach the rest.

The version we learned was "Mary had a Steamboat" and was almost identical to the versions of your "Miss Lucy" song. One interesting exception was we used "Behind the Iron Curtain" instead of "Behind the Refrigerator." Some verses were left out, and we had an additional verse at the end.
posted by Yorrick at 12:17 PM on December 3, 2006

I have a book about this. It's a book cataloguing what it calls "children's folklore" and it has chapters on everything from hand clapping rhymes to dead baby jokes. If only my bookshelves were organized I'd have it in hand right now. I'll see if I can find it...
posted by shanevsevil at 12:36 PM on December 3, 2006

Hmm, it's interesting how pervasive some of these are. As for me, a child of the 80s/early 90s in Ontario I remember all of the ones mentioned.

Somewhat like Yorrick, our version of the rhyme said "behind the yellow curtain". I remember yellow padiddle upon seeing cars with one \headlight, punchbuggy, feet up and holding our breath when passing cemetaries.

I quite enjoyed reading the essay on the Miss Susie rhyme. Some of the other references in this thread look interesting as well. Thanks for asking the question.
posted by aclevername at 12:47 PM on December 3, 2006

Best. Thread. Ever.

It may not only be American children doing these things. I have a friend that moved to the states from India for college. He and I have had a number of late night bar discussions about the Miss-Lucy-type rhymes. This usually ends up in two drunk twenty-somethings playing patty cake and trying to remember the correct rhymes between jager bombs and pool games.
posted by youngergirl44 at 1:00 PM on December 3, 2006

Kids learn memes from other kids. Kids make up new ones as they relate them to things in their own world. Kids teach these new memes to other kids. Rinse and repeat.

Example? Slug bug has now morphed into "Cruiser Bruiser" - whenever one sees a PT Cruiser (that hideous invention), again, a punch. Interact with kids for any significant period of time and you can see it happening - it's really rather interesting. They learn stuff from an outside source, integrate it, and then change it to fit their own circumstances. Sometimes they keep the old version, sometimes not. (In my younger sisters' case, they still punch for Bugs. So now I get hit twice as often...)

As a side note, I never learned "padiddle" or "pididdle" until I was 18, in Utah (grew up in northern California), where it was introduced to me as "perdiddle" - see a car with one headlight out, kiss your fingers and touch the ceiling of the car - kisses get "saved" on the top of the car until you're in said car with someone you want to use them on. ;)

It would be fascinating to simply try and track the evolution of these things, over a number of years - I'm sure the forms they're in have little or nothing to do with the way they started, in most cases. (Ring around the rosie excepted, obviously.)

And yeah, each culture has their own set - I remember hearing the Mexican version of "eenie-meenie-miney-mo," which doesn't resemble the english except that it's rhythmic and rhymes and is used for the same purpose. ;)
posted by po at 1:04 PM on December 3, 2006

po - I'm with you on the evolution of the things, that's really what I'm after -- if there's a definable beginning of them. The punch buggy, I think, would be a good place to start, because the manufacture of the VW Beetle has a clear beginning. Anybody old enough to have played punch Studebaker?
posted by one_bean at 1:20 PM on December 3, 2006

I wonder if the VW thing is a successor to "lucky strikes," which is what the first person to spot a discarded pack of same yelled while punching the shoulder of the person (male person, usually) next to them. There was a lot more smoking of Lucky Strikes, and a lot more litter, back in the 60s. The disappearance of those cigarette packages might have spawned a new excuse for pounding your pals.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:40 PM on December 3, 2006

I learned the "padiddle" thing from a girl in western Wisconsin, only you said "padiddle" if you were the first to see a car with a headlight out, and "geronimo" if you were the first to see one with a taillight out.
posted by GaelFC at 3:09 PM on December 3, 2006

I don't know if shanevsevil and I have the same book collection of those, but what I have is Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts. Unfortunately, it gives no definitive history.
posted by Glitter Ninja at 3:56 PM on December 3, 2006

I grew up in Wichita, Kansas. I learned all those songs like "Miss Mary Mac" at the local Girl Scout camps. I'd think summer camps bringing in kids (and camp counselors) from different towns/states is probably a big way that a lot of these things get spread across the country.

I learned the "slug bug" game and how "jinx" works on the school bus (I walked to my elementary school, but in the summer we rode a bus to our summer program with kids from other neighborhood schools -- kids from different schools had slightly different rules for these games, so every summer we had to re-negotiate a set of common rules).

We have the burnt-out headlight game here too (although I never really learned the rules), but I've never heard it called "padiddle." I never saw anyone play this game until we were ~16 and started getting our drivers licenses. You played when driving around with your friends, not when in a car with your family. I think it works like how po describes above, with quickly kissing your fingertips and tapping the car ceiling. You could also, I think, do the same thing when you drive through an intersection while the light is yellow. But instead of saving up kisses, here they keep score, and if you achieved a certain score ratio, the other player owed you "sex" -- not that this was actually redeemable. If you get to a certain number (five? ten? seven?), you could wipe out another passenger's score...or something. The rules for this seemed to vary more, and less people knew about it, likely because none of us started playing until we were a bit older and always driving around with the same few kids.
posted by katieinshoes at 4:21 PM on December 3, 2006

All of these slightly sexual but repressed versions of "padiddle" are just echos of things heard from older siblings.

The real version/myth is that if you are cruising (especially in a 60s car with bench seating in which you can get at least 3 in the front and 3 in the back) then identifying a "padiddle" means that you have the right to kiss anybody in the car you want. Little kids may have reworked this part.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 5:57 PM on December 3, 2006

There is a boxing drill called "shoeshine" where you punch nonstop, jab cross jab cross jab cross, for a minute, or two, or however long the person in charge tells you to. This drill can be pretty grueling at the end of a strenuous class, and I used to have a tough time with it until I realized I could use those childhood rhymes to distract myself enough to keep going. I find I can get through Miss Mary Mac at least twice in a minute.

I wonder if the words have changed since I was a kid. Is 50 cents enough to go see jumping elephants these days?

Data points: grew up in the middle of New Jersey, never heard of padiddle until I read it here tonight, didn't hear of punch buggy until after college, held our breath when passing cemeteries, and picked up our feet when going over railroad tracks.
posted by bink at 7:28 PM on December 3, 2006

In my case, the inter-generational transfer of songs was either from my parents directly, or from other parents via Boy Scout camp. And then the kids spread them directly.
posted by smackfu at 7:31 PM on December 3, 2006

I learned these songs at Girl Scout camp, usually informally because they were not the nice "Kumbaya" songs the leaders wanted you to be singing. This camp was also where I learned about "drape."

Did you guys play "Oom-Pom-Pee"? Or do the "bump ahead" thing? "Big curve"?
posted by booksandlibretti at 8:08 PM on December 3, 2006

Childhood in Texas here:
I don't remember the "hit the roof of the car burnt-out headlight" phenomenon having a name, but we did it. It also could be done whilst driving through a yellow light.
I was taught "Miss Suzy" instead of Miss Lucy, probably just evolved out of pleasing sibilance1.
There was also "Jinx" which was rapidly followed with the shared chant of "1-2-3 you owe me a Coke.2" My younger sister would follow this with "Tickle, tickle you owe me a pickle," which must've evolved at some point during three years of ever-changing schoolyard chatter.
I was introduced to "slug-bug" by my father at the tender age of five.

1. There was recently a post on Language Log concerning this rhyme (scroll down a bit, no anchor).
2. (because that's what we call soft-drinks)

posted by ktrey at 9:07 PM on December 3, 2006

Also: We had to say Bloody Mary thirteen times for her to show up.
posted by ktrey at 9:18 PM on December 3, 2006

As kids we played punch buggy, held our breath when passing cemeteries and when going through tunnels, and lifted our feet when going over railroad tracks. Played Miss Susie, not Miss Lucy, and was fond of Miss Mary Mack (all dressed in black!-black!-black!)

As an adult I learned another version of "Padiddle", except it was called "Sex" and if you saw a car with one headlight out, you called out "sex" and others in the car had to remove an article of clothing. I had never heard of Padiddle until just now, but as children the game was called "Popeye" and you would punch the other person in the car if they missed it. Lots of punching in the car, between Popeye and punch buggy. Oh yeah, and you had to say the color of the car, and state that punchbacks were not allowed ("Punch buggy red, no punch back!")

Also, when the driver went through a light that was turning yellow, you would kiss your fingers and touch the roof. Not sure why.
posted by sephira at 4:43 AM on December 4, 2006

A particular favorite was, whenever someone burped, everyone had to say a different color and put their thumb on their forehead. The last person to do so "ate" the burp, and everyone the pointed at said person and exclaimed "(insert name) ate the burp!"
posted by penchant at 7:57 AM on December 4, 2006

I played all of the above (mostly as a teenager). The "Sex" version of padiddle got to be interesting because I had a convertible...
We also played a nameless game in which you held your hand with your finger and thumb making a circle below your waist. The first person to look at it got punched. Come to think of it, this game may have been called "Asshole" (because the circled fingers are made to symbolize an asshole?).
When I was in elementary school there was also the Senorita game. I had to look up the words, but I found this page, which might be helpful:
Children's Rhymes
posted by denimflavored at 11:48 AM on December 4, 2006

Grew up in Alabama here, rural Alabama. You want to know about superstitions!?!

We did the Miss Lucy song, as well as Mary Mac and Miss Suzy. We had "cooties." We did the padiddle thing, except we did touch the ceiling and called out "pop-eye" the first to do so garnered a "point" but no one really kept score and no prizes were awarded to my knowledge. We also kissed our fingers and touched the ceiling for a yellow light (called squeezing the lemon).

We held our breath passing a cemetary or crossing a bridge over water. We did the burp thing penchant talks about except the eater had to dance around and sing, "I ate it, I ate it, it was mmm-mmm good!" We also had a similar fart version where the "dealer" called out "Freejack" if he or she failed to do so and someone else called the dealer on it, he or she lost one of the above mentioned pop-eye points not to mention, gained the scorn and contempt of his or her fellow man.

Two for flinching.

Made you look!
posted by Pollomacho at 1:12 AM on December 5, 2006

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