The History Behind 8 Famous Tongue Twisters

iStock
iStock

Tongue twisters have been screwing up speaking abilities around the world for centuries. As entertaining as tripping over tricky terms can be, early English twisters were also used to teach pupils proper speech. In a note to teachers in his 1878 book Practical Elocution, J.W. Shoemaker reminded them of the "higher motive" of these confounding sayings: "To The Teacher—While many of the exercises ... may create amusement in a class, a higher motive than 'Amusement' has prompted their insertion. Practice is here afforded in nearly every form of difficult articulation."

Whether it's selling seashells by the seashore or buying Betty Botter's bitter butter, some of these difficult phrases go way back to when elocution was practiced as routinely as multiplication tables. Come along as we untangle the history behind a few familiar phrases. Fittingly, many tongue twister origin stories are just as knotty as the expressions themselves.

1. PETER PIPER

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers;
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where's the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

Peter and his famous pickled peppers first appeared in print in 1813 in John Harris's Peter Piper's Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation.

But as is the case with many classic tongue twisters, the rhyme itself may have already been in common use by that time (the book offered similarly formatted phrases for each letter of the alphabet, and Peter clearly got top billing).

Several spice enthusiasts have also suggested the Peter in question was based on 18th century French horticulturalist Pierre Poivre, though that connection should probably be taken with a grain of salt (or pepper, in this case).

Much like Mary Anning and her rumored seashore seashells (more on this later), Poivre's ties to the poem, while feasible, aren't necessarily rooted in concrete evidence. Poivre is French for "pepper," Piper was both Latin for "pepper" and a typical British last name, and the man was known for smuggling cloves from the Spice Islands in his day, so the supposed link makes sense. As a renowned gardener, Poivre may very well have pickled peppers with those stolen cloves, but we don’t actually know for sure.

2. HOW MUCH WOOD WOULD A WOODCHUCK CHUCK?

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,
If a woodchuck could chuck wood?

While it likely predates her, Vaudeville performer Fay Templeton is credited with putting the woodchucking woodchuck on the map. “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” was the chorus of a number Templeton sang in 1903 in the Broadway musical The Runaways (not to be confused with the musical Runaways).

Robert Hobart Davis and Theodore F. Morse wrote Templeton’s "Woodchuck Song," and a few years later “Ragtime” Bob Roberts covered it on his 1904 record, boosting its popularity. The tongue-tripping refrain stuck around and even inspired the title of director Werner Herzog’s 1976 documentary "How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck: Observations on a New Language" about the 13th International World Livestock Auctioneering Championship.

More recently, scholars have focused less on the origin of the phrase and more on the answer to its central question. In 1988, a fish and wildlife technician for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation made national headlines when he posited if a woodchuck could chuck wood (because they actually can’t) it would be able to chuck about 700 pounds of the stuff—but that little detail must not have fit into the linguistic flow of the original rhyme.

3. AND 4. BETTY BOTTER AND TWO TOOTERS

Betty Botter bought some butter;
"But," said she, "this butter's bitter!
If I put it in my batter
It will make my batter bitter.
But a bit o' better butter
Will but make my batter better."
Then she bought a bit o’ butter
Better than the bitter butter,
Made her bitter batter better.
So 'twas better Betty Botter
Bought a bit o’ better butter.

**

A tutor who tooted the flute
Tried to teach two young tooters to toot.
Said the two to the tutor,
"Is it harder to toot, or
To tutor two tooters to toot?"

Both these classic twisters can be traced to poet and novelist Carolyn Wells's writings in the late 1890s. Betty Botter would go on to be included in Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes and both verses can be found in several variations. While we don’t know who or what exactly sparked the characters of Betty or the tutor, we do know Wells was pretty prolific in terms of her writing. Her 1902 book A Nonsense Anthology—another volume of silly linguistic gymnastics—would be her most famous, but she was also behind more than 100 other books, including mysteries and children’s stories. As if her written contributions to the American language weren't enough, Wells was also known for donating her epic collection of Walt Whitman manuscripts and first editions to the Library of Congress.

5. SHE SELLS SEASHELLS

She sells seashells on the sea shore.
The shells she sells are seashells, I'm sure.
And if she sells seashells on the sea shore,
Then I'm sure she sells seashore shells.

The story behind "She Sells Seashells" has gotten perhaps the most attention in recent years. Legend has it the rhyme is a tribute to 19th century English paleontologist Mary Anning.

Anning was an impressive fossil hunter who is thought to have been responsible for scientific achievements from discovering the first articulated plesiosaur to being among the first to identify fossilized poop—though her male contemporaries had a frustrating way of swiping credit from her.

Anning is known in scientific circles (Charles Dickens even wrote about his admiration for her after her 1847 death) but the idea that she’s also the muse behind the tongue twister has given the general public a nice way to honor her as well. Of course, as Stephen Winick of the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center pointed out, we don’t actually have anything that proves the rumored connection between Anning and the tongue twister. Many outlets cited the 1908 Terry Sullivan and Harry Gifford song that includes the phrase in its lyrics as the birth of this particular tongue twister, but Winick found a handful of earlier instances of its use (similar versions were included in Shoemaker’s elocution book and published in an 1898 issue of Werner’s Magazine, for example). The first known suggestion that the verse was related to Anning seems to be a 1977 book Henry De la Beche: Observations on an Observer, though it was only raised as a possibility and there was no source offered for the reference.

6. I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM

I scream, you scream,
We all scream for ice cream.

Tongues didn't get particularly twisted with this one, but they did get cold.

There’s some disagreement on who first came up with this ditty about everyone’s favorite frozen treat. Throughout the 19th century there were many jokes and comments about how similar “ice cream” and “I scream” sound. But in 1905 a company selling ice cream freezers in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, advertised “I Scream, You Scream, We all Scream for Ice Cream! This is certainly Ice Cream Weather. Have you a good Ice Cream Freezer?” While unlikely the first usage of the phrase (something very similar appears in Wisconsin a few months earlier), the rhyme probably became famous thanks to Howard Johnson, Billy Moll, and Robert King, who wrote the phrase into a song of the same name in 1927. Waring’s Pennsylvanians recorded the song, and it became a jazz standard in the '40s. It’s been making people hungry, and haunting ice cream truck drivers, ever since.

7. SUPERCALIFRAGILISTICEXPIALIDOCIOUS

Maybe the best-known one-word tongue twister, supercalifragilisticexpialidocious isn't short on complicated back story. Most people associate the mouthful of a nonsense word with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke dancing with cartoons from the 1964 movie adaptation of P.L. Travers's book series Mary Poppins.

But according to songwriters Barney Young and Gloria Parker, they'd used the word first (or a slight variation on it, supercalafajalistickespeealadojus) in their song, which was also known as "The Super Song." So when Disney came out with their song, written by Robert and Richard Sherman, Young and Parker took them to court for copyright infringement. The Shermans claimed they'd learned the funny word at camp as children in the '30s. Young and Parker said Young had made up the word as a kid in 1921 and the pair had sent their song to Disney in 1951. They sued for $12 million.

The judge in the ordeal was so flustered by the 14-syllable term in court proceedings, he insisted they refer to it as simply "the word." He ended up throwing out the case, saying the tongue twister had been in common use in New York as far back as the '30s, but the controversy always lingered. Later, another instance of the word being used in 1931, this time spelled supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus, was discovered. It had appeared in the Syracuse University student newspaper [PDF], and the writer of the column claimed she'd been the one who made it up, too.

8. PAD KID

Pad kid poured curd pulled cod

Not yet as recognizable as some other more traditional rhymes, this short sentence was developed by MIT researchers in 2013 as the world’s trickiest twister. The phrase is deceptively harder than something like the "I Scream" song or even the woodchucking woodchuck.

As part of the 166th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, where the facilitators were looking to find how certain speech patterns work psychologically, volunteers were recorded during the project reciting different types of twisters—and Pad Kid caused the most trouble. Because of the phrase's alliteration and words with similar sounds, the brain makes it difficult to repeat quickly without a mistake.

Previously, “The sixth sick sheikh's sixth sheep's sick” was often cited as the world’s toughest twister (it even held the Guinness World Record for a time). But as the official category no longer exists, the MIT creation just might take the tongue twister cake.

The 10 Best Air Fryers on Amazon

Cosori/Amazon
Cosori/Amazon

When it comes to making food that’s delicious, quick, and easy, you can’t go wrong with an air fryer. They require only a fraction of the oil that traditional fryers do, so you get that same delicious, crispy texture of the fried foods you love while avoiding the extra calories and fat you don’t.

But with so many air fryers out there, it can be tough to choose the one that’ll work best for you. To make your life easier—and get you closer to that tasty piece of fried chicken—we’ve put together a list of some of Amazon’s top-rated air frying gadgets. Each of the products below has at least a 4.5-star rating and over 1200 user reviews, so you can stop dreaming about the perfect dinner and start eating it instead.

1. Ultrean Air Fryer; $76

Ultrean/Amazon

Around 84 percent of reviewers awarded the Ultrean Air Fryer five stars on Amazon, making it one of the most popular models on the site. This 4.2-quart oven doesn't just fry, either—it also grills, roasts, and bakes via its innovative rapid air technology heating system. It's available in four different colors (red, light blue, black, and white), making it the perfect accent piece for any kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Cosori Air Fryer; $120

Cosori/Amazon

This highly celebrated air fryer from Cosori will quickly become your favorite sous chef. With 11 one-touch presets for frying favorites, like bacon, veggies, and fries, you can take the guesswork out of cooking and let the Cosori do the work instead. One reviewer who “absolutely hates cooking” said, after using it, “I'm actually excited to cook for the first time ever.” You’ll feel the same way!

Buy it: Amazon

3. Innsky Air Fryer; $90

Innsky/Amazon

With its streamlined design and the ability to cook with little to no oil, the Innsky air fryer will make you feel like the picture of elegance as you chow down on a piece of fried shrimp. You can set a timer on the fryer so it starts cooking when you want it to, and it automatically shuts off when the cooking time is done (a great safety feature for chefs who get easily distracted).

Buy it: Amazon

4. Secura Air Fryer; $62

Secura/Amazon

This air fryer from Secura uses a combination of heating techniques—hot air and high-speed air circulation—for fast and easy food prep. And, as one reviewer remarked, with an extra-large 4.2-quart basket “[it’s] good for feeding a crowd, which makes it a great option for large families.” This fryer even comes with a toaster rack and skewers, making it a great addition to a neighborhood barbecue or family glamping trip.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Chefman Turbo Fry; $60

Chefman/Amazon

For those of you really looking to cut back, the Chefman Turbo Fry uses 98 percent less oil than traditional fryers, according to the manufacturer. And with its two-in-one tank basket that allows you to cook multiple items at the same time, you can finally stop using so many pots and pans when you’re making dinner.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Ninja Air Fryer; $100

Ninja/Amazon

The Ninja Air Fryer is a multipurpose gadget that allows you to do far more than crisp up your favorite foods. This air fryer’s one-touch control panel lets you air fry, roast, reheat, or even dehydrate meats, fruits, and veggies, whether your ingredients are fresh or frozen. And the simple interface means that you're only a couple buttons away from a homemade dinner.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Instant Pot Air Fryer + Electronic Pressure Cooker; $180

Instant Pot/Amazon

Enjoy all the perks of an Instant Pot—the ability to serve as a pressure cooker, slow cooker, yogurt maker, and more—with a lid that turns the whole thing into an air fryer as well. The multi-level fryer basket has a broiling tray to ensure even crisping throughout, and it’s big enough to cook a meal for up to eight. If you’re more into a traditional air fryer, check out Instant Pot’s new Instant Vortex Pro ($140) air fryer, which gives you the ability to bake, proof, toast, and more.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Omorc Habor Air Fryer; $100

Omorc Habor/Amazon

With a 5.8-quart capacity, this air fryer from Omorc Habor is larger than most, giving you the flexibility of cooking dinner for two or a spread for a party. To give you a clearer picture of the size, its square fryer basket, built to maximize cooking capacity, can handle a five-pound chicken (or all the fries you could possibly eat). Plus, with a non-stick coating and dishwasher-safe basket and frying pot, this handy appliance practically cleans itself.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Dash Deluxe Air Fryer; $100

Dash/Amazon

Dash’s air fryer might look retro, but its high-tech cooking ability is anything but. Its generously sized frying basket can fry up to two pounds of French fries or two dozen wings, and its cool touch handle makes it easy (and safe) to use. And if you're still stumped on what to actually cook once you get your Dash fryer, you'll get a free recipe guide in the box filled with tips and tricks to get the most out of your meal.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Bella Air Fryer; $52

Bella/Amazon

This petite air fryer from Bella may be on the smaller side, but it still packs a powerful punch. Its 2.6-quart frying basket makes it an ideal choice for couples or smaller families—all you have to do is set the temperature and timer, and throw your food inside. Once the meal is ready, its indicator light will ding to let you know that it’s time to eat.

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Why Do We Say ‘Spill the Beans’?

This is a Greek tragedy.
This is a Greek tragedy.
anthony_taylor/iStock via Getty Images

Though superfans of The Office may claim otherwise, the phrase spill the beans did not originate when Kevin Malone dropped a massive bucket of chili at work during episode 26 of season five. In fact, people supposedly started talking about spilling the beans more than 2000 years ago.

According to Bloomsbury International, one voting method in ancient Greece involved (uncooked) beans. If you were voting yes on a certain matter, you’d place a white bean in the jar; if you were voting no, you’d use your black bean. The jar wasn’t transparent, and since the votes were meant to be kept secret until the final tally, someone who accidentally knocked it over mid-vote was literally spilling the beans—and figuratively spilling the beans about the results.

While we don’t know for sure that the phrase spill the beans really does date all the way back to ancient times, we do know that people have used the word spill to mean “divulge” at least since the 16th century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest known reference of it is from a letter written by Spanish chronicler Antonio de Guevara sometime before his death in 1545 (the word spill appears in Edward Hellowes’s 1577 translation of the letter).

Writers started to pair spill with beans during the 20th century. The first known mention is from Thomas K. Holmes’s 1919 novel The Man From Tall Timber: “‘Mother certainly has spilled the beans!’ thought Stafford in vast amusement.”

In short, it’s still a mystery why people decided that beans were an ideal food to describe spilling secrets. As for whether you’re imagining hard, raw beans like the Greeks used or the tender, seasoned beans from Kevin Malone’s ill-fated chili, we’ll leave that up to you.

[h/t Bloomsbury International]