The snail in nursery rhymes

Snail, snail, come out of your hole,
Or else I’ll beat you as black as coal.
Snail, snail, put out your horns,
I’ll give you bread and barley corns.

The somewhat disparaging appellation ‘nursery rhymes’ embraces at least three categories of versification: (1) traditional rhymes, such as the above, transmitted orally from antiquity and existing in many versions, dialects and languages; (2) verses not originally intended for children, such as political lampoons, which have been subsequently taken over by the young; (3) ‘poems’, using the word in a generous sense, expressly written for children. Verses of which the snail is a theme come in the first and third categories. For considerations of space only those earlier than the nineteenth century are referred to in this article.

The above quotation with its variants in this and other languages must be the most ancient nursery rhyme featuring the snail. Its first appearance in print was in our earliest book of nursery rhymes, “Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book” (1744). This is one of the world’s rarest books, in fact it could not be rarer: volume one survives only as a unique reprint (Opie, 1975, No. 16), while the only known copy of volume two, in which ‘Snail, snail’, occurs, is in the library of the British Museum. The verse must be far older than this anthology. There is an echo in “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, act 4, scene 2:
“and so buffettes himselfe on the for-head: crying peere-out, peere-out.”

Versions of the invocation exist from Denmark and Germany south to France, Spain and Italy, and east to Roumania, Russia and even China. For numerous local variants see Halliwell, 1849 (1970), Opie, 1951, and Nance, 1956, 1957. The first cites this version:

Sneel, snaul, robbers are coming to pull down your wall.
Sneel, snaul, put out your horn,
Robbers are coming to steal your corn,
Coming at four o’clock in the morn.

In Scotland the snail was invoked as a weather prophet:

Snailie, snailie, shoot out your horn,
And tell us if it will be a bonnie day the morn,

and in Somerset as a rain-maker (Newall, 1971a):

Snail, snail, put out your horn,
We want some rain to grow our corn.
Out, horn, out.

In parts of Cornwall the snail was apostrophised as Bul(h)orn, Malorn, Jin-jorn, John Jago, Jan-jake, Bull-jig, Buljinks and Hornywink:

Bulorn, Bulorn, put out your long horn, your father and mother is dead;
Your sister and brother is to the back-door, a-begging of barley bread!

Dodnian, hodmandod and hoddamadod are East Anglian names for the snail:

Hod-ma-dod, Hod—ma-Dod, stick out your horns,
Here comes an old beggar to cut off your corns.

The clue to this nonsense is in the ‘Sneel, snaul’ verse.

Another nursery rhyme of some antiquity libels the sartorial profession:

Four-and-twenty tailors went to kill a snail,
The best man amongst them durst not touch her tail;
She put out her horns like a little Kyloe cow;
Run, tailors, run, or she’ll kill you all e’en now.

This defamatory quatrain, other versions of which are cited by Halliwell, 1842 (1970), and Opie, 1951, first appeared in “Gammer Gurton’s Garland or the Nursery Parnassus” (1784). It is not clear why tailors should have been singled out for this calumny, but in folklore they have long had a reputation for pusillanimity. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable suggests a connection with the nine ‘tellers’ tolled for a death knell (whence Dorothy L. Sayers derived the title of her story, “The Nine Tailors”). Walters, 1912 (p. 156), states that “Most commonly 3 x 3 strokes are given at the death of a man, 3 x 2 for a woman, and 3 x I for a child. ...These strokes are called ‘tellers’, in Dorset ‘tailers’; hence the saying, ‘nine tailors make a man’. ‘Tailer’ is really the original form, referring to their being rung at the ‘tail’ or end of the knell.” (see also Walters, 1908, p. 96; Smith, 1970, pp. 567, 797). Be this as it may, in our rhyme the number of tailors is 3 x 3 x 3 - 3: the number 24 must have some mystical significance — compare Numbers 7:88, Haggai 2:18, Revelation 4:4, and the 24 demons and 24 genii of the Zoroastrian creation myth (Newall, 1971b, p. 29). Hewson (p. 29; reference in Opie, 1973, No. 627) propounds a more anagogical interpretation. The slander dates back to at any rate 1630. North of the Border it is High-landmen who were thus maligned (Montgomerie, 1964): one suspects some anti-Jacobite poetaster of being the perpetrator of this unmerited insult.

A nursery rhyme with a history of at least 400 years is “A Frog who would a-wooing go.” This is probably the same as “The frog cam to the myl dur,” one of the ‘sueit melodius sangis’ sung by the shepherds in “The Complaynt of Scotlande,” 1549 (Opie,1951); “A moste Strange weddinge of the ffrogge and the Mowse” is dated 1580; but the earliest surviving text is “The Marriage of the Frogge and the Movse,” Melismata, Thomas Ravenscroft (1611). In Andrew Lang’s rendering:

This frog he would a-wooing ride,
And on a snail he got astride.

An improbable writer of children’s verses is John Bunyan: “A Book for Boys and Girls; or Country Rhimes for Children” was published in 1686. Subsequent editions were entitled, “Divine Emblems, or Temporal Things Spiritualized.” This is another very scarce book: two copies of the first edition are known, one of which is in the British Museum library. A facsimile was issued by Elliot Stock (1890); the American Tract Society published the most recent edition (New York, 1928). It may come as a surprise that the puritanical author of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” could have descended to such frivolity, but a pious moral or ‘comparison’ is appended to the poems, which makes it all right. There can be no more graphic illustration of the gulf separating the children of the seventeenth and twentieth centuries than this precious volume.


Upon The Snail

She goes but softly, but she goeth sure,
She stumbles not, as stronger Creatures do:
Her Journeys shorter, so she may endure,
Better than they which do much further go.
She makes no noise, but stilly seizeth on
The Flow’r or Herb, appointed for her food;
The which she quietly doth feed upon,
While others range, and gare, but find no good.
And tho she doth but very softly go,
How ever ‘tis not fast, nor slow but sure;
And certainly they that do travel so
The prize they do aim at, they do procure.



Although they seem not much to stir, less go,
For Christ that hunger, or from Wrath, that flee;
Yet what they seek for, quickly thy come to,
Tho it doth seem the farthest off to be.
One Act of Faith doth bring them to that Flow’r,
They so long for, that they may eat and live;
Which to attain is not in others Pow’r,
Tho for it a King’s Ransom they would give.
Then let none faint, nor be at all dismaid,
That Life in Christ do seek, they shall not fail
To have it, let them nothing be afraid;
The Herb, and Flow’r is eaten by the Snail.


In line 8, ‘gare’ should be ‘glare’, and in the Comparison, line 3, ‘thy’ is obviously a misprint for ‘they’.

Other traditional rhymes include:

What are little boys made of?


What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails,
And puppy dog's tails
That's what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice,
And all things nice
That's what little girls are made of.

Four and Twenty Tailors

Four and twenty tailors
Went to catch a snail;
The bravest one among them
Dared not touch her tail.
She put out her horns,
Like a little Kyloe cow.
Run, tailors, run,
She'll have you even now!



Halliwell, J .0., 1842. The Nursery Rhymes of England. Percy Society; five subsequent editions, and combined with the next item by Warne, from which The Bodley Head edition (1970) was taken.
Halliwell, J.O., 1849. Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales of England (reissued by The Bodley Head, 1970).
Lang, Andrew, 1897. The Nursery Rhyme Book (Warne).
Montgomerie, Norah & William, 1964. The Hogarth Book of Scottish Nursery Rhymes (Hogarth Press).
Nance, R. Morton, 1956. Bulorn and its congeners. Old Cornwall, vol. 5, No. 7, pp. 311~315.
Nance, R. Morton, 1957. Snail Lore. Old Cornwall, vol. 5, No. 8, pp. 347, 348.
Newall, Venetia, 1971a. Discovering the Folklore of Birds and Beasts (Shire Publications, Tring).
Newall, Venetia, 1971b. An Egg at Easter: a folklore study (Routledge & Kegan Paul).
Opie, lona & Peter, 1951. Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Clarendon Press).
Opie, lona & Peter, 1955. Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book (Clarendon Press).
Opie, lona & Peter, 1973. Three Centuries of Nursery Rhymes and Poetry for Children: an exhibition held at the National Book League, May 1973 (Oxford University Press).
Smith, W .G., 1970. Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, 3rd. edition, edited by F. P. Wilson (Clarendon Press).
Walters, H.B., 1908. Church Bells. The Arts of the Church (A. R. Mowbray, London & Oxford).
Walters, H.B., 1912. Church Bells of England (Oxford University Press).


Originally published by A.E. Ellis (with minor alterations) in Conchologist’s Newsletter 47, Dec. 1973, pp.346–348