“Itsy Bitsy Spider”: The History of the Classic Nursery Rhyme

Early versions of the rhyme included the words ‘bloody’ and ‘blooming’—and sometimes didn’t feature a spider at all.
ByM/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (spider), VladSt/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images (background)

It’s one of the most famous nursery rhymes, one many will remember from their own childhoods: “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” tells the story of a spider climbing up a water spout, being washed away by rain, and climbing once again when the sun has come out; simple hand motions mimicking the events of the song accompany its lyrics as you sing along:

“The itsy bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout.
Down came the rain
And washed the spider out.
Out came the sun
And dried up all the rain
And the itsy bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.”

So what are the origins of this famous song? There has been speculation that the words might allude to something darker—one claim says that the rhyme is based on a song called “Tipsy Dipsy Hobo” and was a reference to the dangers of a person getting drunk and trying to climb on board of trains, risking a fatal injury. But there doesn’t appear to be any credible source for this interpretation—or any other about a dark meaning behind the lyrics—and the rhyme’s author has never been identified. The earliest concrete information about the song doesn’t pop up until the early 20th century.

The Origins—and Evolution—of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” 

While the song is largely known as “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” today (at least in America—more on that in a bit), an earlier version of the rhyme had a much more general title: The song is featured in Arthur Walbridge North’s 1910 book, Camp and Camino in Lower California, and a comparison of the song’s title and lyrics show how it has evolved over the years. In his book, North refers to it as “that classic, the ‘Spider Song,’” and gives the lyrics as follows:

“Oh, the blooming, bloody spider went up the water spout,
The blooming, bloody rain came down and washed the spider out,
The blooming, bloody sun came out and dried up all the rain,
And the blooming, bloody spider came up the spout again.”

This seems to be the earliest version of the rhyme found in print. In addition to a different title, the use of the intensifiers bloody and blooming (the former of which is sometimes considered offensive) indicates that it was once a more adult song than the innocuous version commonly used today. North’s mention of the song as a “classic” also indicates that it had been around for a substantial period of time before he put it in his book. (Spiders weren’t the only creatures to be mentioned in the song, either; one version that made it into Collier’s in 1913 was described as a “deathless Cockney lyric” and mentioned a “bloody sparrow” that “lived in a blooming spout”; a “bloody blooming rain … washed the beggar out.”)

Despite its mature early lyrics, by the mid-20th century, “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” was established as a rhyme for children. In 1948, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger published a collection entitled American Folk Songs for Children, which included the rhyme under the title “Eency Weency Spider” as well as music to accompany the words. That same year, a version of the rhyme appeared in an issue of Western Folklore as “The Eenzy Weenzy Spider” in an article called “Children’s Rhymes With Gestures”:



Eenzy, weenzy spider

Raise arms [...]

Went up the waterspout.

[...] alternating thumb and index fingers of opposite hands.

Down comes the rain

Bring both hands down.

And washes spider out.

Then to right side.

Up comes the sun

Bring both hands up.

And drives away the rain.

Then to right side.

Eenzy, weenzy spider, etc.

Commence action again.

“The Itsy Bitsy Spider” Around the World

The popularity of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” has continued to grow, and today, many different versions can be found around the world.

In the UK and Australia, the song is known by the name of “Incy Wincy Spider” (incy-wincy is a variant of eensy-weensy, meaning “extremely small,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary) and is taught in UK schools under that name. The version used in the UK differs slightly from the American version, sometimes substituting “washed the spider out” with “washed poor Incy out,” adding sympathy for the spider’s plight [PDF].

In the Philippines, the song goes by the title “Ang gagmay nga lawa” (“The Small Spiders”), and the tiny arachnids climb a branch before getting wet in the rain. The French version of the song is called “L’araignée Gypsy” (“The Gypsy Spider”), in which the spider falls to the ground (“Gypsy tombe par terre”) when the rain comes and falls asleep when the sun comes out (“L’araignée Gypsy s’est endormie”). In the version of the song sung in the Netherlands, it’s a beetle that climbs the water spout—and in Finland, they repeat the Finnish word for spider, hämä-hämä-häkki, which, in English, translates to something like “Spi-spi-der.” Meanwhile, in Norway, the spider has a name: Peter.

“The Itsy Bitsy Spider” in Pop Culture

Its influence of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” has extended into pop culture, too.  It has been covered by artists including Carly Simon (on her album Coming Around Again), Little Richard (on the Disney record For Our Children), and Aqua (who went by the name Joyspeed at the time).

The song was also featured in Jordan Peele’s 2019 film Us, in which the protagonist, Adelaide, is shown whistling the tune as she journeys through a hall of mirrors in a funhouse; the recurrence of the tune later in the film leads to an important moment for her character.

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