Schoolyard rhymes. Jabberwocky, Babble's urban parenting dictionary column. By Mark Peters.

I hate you, you hate me

Let’s get together and kill Barney

With a shotgun blast and Barney’s on the floor

No more purple dinosaur

An eleven-year-old New Hampshirite, 1994

I first heard a version of this verse sometime between 1993 and 2000, when I worked as a summer camp counselor. As far as I knew, these lyrics were the creative, semi-deranged work of a single child. So imagine my surprise in reading Josepha Sherman and T.K.F Weiskopf’s amazing book Greasy Grimy Gopher Guts: The Subversive Folklore of Childhood (American Storytelling), which presents no less than thirteen child-propelled parodies of the Barney theme, almost all involving the purple beast’s gruesome demise.

The Barney variations are just a few of the hundreds of rhymes and songs from the world of the schoolyard, the school bus, the summer camp and the back of the classroom, where kids have mangled songs of every sort, taking the piss out of authority figures, pop culture, bodily functions and grim death. Though many readers will be barfed out by the content, it’s hard to read this book without being bowled over by the relentless creativity. Sherman and Weiskopf’s work shows that kids are mini-Stephen Colberts, masters of spoofery composing an oral equivalent of The Onion every day. Or as the authors put it, these “songs and rhymes fearlessly take on the taboos and terrors of the adult world and turn them into things that can be safely mocked.”

Jabberwocky: Nanny Nanny Boo Boo

The gross-out poetry of schoolyard rhymes. by Mark Peters

July 16, 2007


The authors focused on North America and did their collecting between 1991 and 1994, talking to informants ranging from five-year-olds to nostalgic (or sheepish) adults. The year and location of sources are given, though last names are omitted, since remarkably few people of any age want their name attached to lines like “There’s a monkey in the grass / With a bullet up his ass.” The title was taken from one of the most commonly found rhymes. Here’s one version:

Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts,

Mutilated monkey meat,

Little birdies’ dirty feet.

Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts,


And I forgot my spoon.

Sherman, Bronx, NY, ca. 1960s

Twenty variations of this prototypical gross-out song are included, some containing vulture vomit, barbecued baby brains, Elvis Presley’s dirty feet, chewed-up parakeets, camel snot, a barrel of pus, a tub of blood and other gak-worthy items. Though kids do delight in yuck for yuck’s sake, there’s more than mere grossification goingThough kids do delight in yuck for yuck’s sake, there’s more than mere grossification going on here. on here. As the authors note, kids take on the unpleasant, unseemly and unspeakable to “ridicule the horror with deliberately disgusting exaggeration.” Kids and adults know that ridiculing the horror makes it a lot easier to get out of bed.

In addition to striking back against the forces that control or confuse them, it’s hard to miss the giddy playfulness that might be a type of Funktionslust, a German word I first came across in Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy’s classic look at animal emotions, When Elephants Weep. Masson and McCarthy describe Funktionslust as “pleasure taken in what one can do best – the pleasure a cat takes in climbing trees or monkeys take in swinging from branch to branch.” Since language is one of the defining qualities of us hairless apes, it’s pretty natural that kids take such joy in wordplay. It’s just what they (and we) do.

In other words, Nanny nanny boo boo. Stick your head in . . . well, you know.

Article Posted 8 years Ago
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