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The meaning and origin of the expression: Pop goes the weasel

Pop goes the weasel

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Pop goes the weasel'?

The name of the nursery rhyme and song.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Pop goes the weasel'?

Pop goes the weaselLike most nursery rhymes, this has some very odd imagery, which has led to much debate as to the meaning and origin of this rhyme.

The origin is perhaps the easier of the two. The earliest known published version is as the title of a dance tune. "Pop goes the weasel" is a simple tune and there are several English/Irish/Scottish country dances that are similar.

Pop goes the weaselThe dance became something of a craze in the 1850s and it was popular enough in early 1853 for a Mr. Moutrie, in the fashionable location of Bath, to have considered it worthwhile to place an advertisement in the Bath Chronicle, offering "instruction the the highly fashionable dances" of 'Pop Goes The Weasel', 'La Tempete' and 'Coulson Quadrille'.

A newspaper advertisement by Boosey and Sons in 1854 suggests that Queen Victoria was influential in the popularity of the dance:

"The new country dance 'Pop goes the weasel', introduced by her Majesty Queen Victoria."

The dance didn't have lyrics as such. It was a jig and "pop goes the weasel" was shouted out at significant points to accentuate the dance.

There's no real evidence to suggest that 'Pop goes the weasel' was anything other than the nonsense name of a dance or that the meaning of 'pop' and 'weasel' merit any further investigation.

People do like to speculate though so here's the most commonly repeated 'explanation' of the meaning of the phrase, that is, that it derives from the meaning of the well-known nursery rhyme.

Rhymes of this sort are repeated word of mouth and it's entirely plausible that it existed in oral form as a children's rhyme before 1850. This 'Chinese whispers' repetition is also the reason for the many variations on the rhyme. Whatever version is picked as the original, it isn't easy to determine the meaning of the words. The version most commonly used in England goes like this:

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.

Up and down the City road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.

Every night when I go out
the monkey’s on the table.
Take a stick and knock it off
Pop goes the weasel.

A penny for a ball of thread
Another for a needle,
That’s the way the money goes,
pop goes the weasel.

All around the cobblers bench
the monkey chased the people;
The donkey thought ’twas all in fun,
pop goes the weasel.

Some of the US versions of the rhyme are significantly different and may have an entirely different source, but using the same tune. It could be that 'money', 'monkey' and 'donkey' that appear in many of the versions are mishearings of the same word. The important words are obviously 'pop' and 'weasel'.

The phrase soon gained hold, in the US especially, although it didn't have a specific or fixed meaning; it appears to have been used just to indicate a sense of occasion - something like 'just like that'. There's an example of that in a newspaper advertisement for groceries from The Hudson North Star newspaper, April 1856 (including 2000 lbs of Extra Family Butter, whatever that is):

"All Selling Cheap. To Close Out Within Sixty Days Or Pop Goes The Weasel"

Of the different meanings of the word weasel, the most commonly used today is as the name of the small carnivorous mammal. Weasels do pop their heads up when disturbed and it is quite plausible that this was the source of the name of the dance.

'Popping' is a slang term for pawning, that is, depositing articles with a pawnbroker in return for money. Weasel may be a corruption of whistle - in cockney rhyming slang 'whistle and flute', that is, suit. It could also be from another example of CRS - 'weasel and stoat', meaning coat.

The Eagle pubThe Eagle was a London pub, near the City Road, and a later Eagle pub still exists on the site. The lyrics of the rhyme go:

Up and down the City Road,
in and out of The Eagle,
that's the way the money goes,
pop goes the weasel

This is said to describe spending all your money on drink in the pub and subsequently pawning your suit to raise some more.

The pawning and popping explanation seem to fit the meaning of the song and the rest of the lyrics (of the English version at least), so many people like to believe it is the origin. However, the expression 'pop goes the weasel' has existed since at least the 1850s but the rhyming slang 'whistle and flute' and 'weasel and stoat' aren't known until the 1930s.

'Pop goes the weasel' only makes sense as 'pawning the suit' if 'weasel' was formed from 'weasel and stoat' or 'whistle and flute', which the evidence of the dates calls into question. So, the theory that 'pop' means 'pawn' is unconvincing.

Just for completeness, there's also a theory that the weasel refers to a weaver's shuttle, which makes a popping sound when the loom is in use. Again, this is mere speculation and there's no supporting evidence for it.

Rhyming slang began in the 1840s and the earliest of these were simple rhymes of single words, for example, the earliest recorded is 'joano' for 'piano' which dates from 1846.

It is possible that one of the rhyming slang expressions 'weasel and stoat' or 'whistle and flute' existed prior to 1850 but this seems unlikely.

It's not what people want to hear but 'pop goes the weasel' is most likely to be a mere nonsense phrase, like 'the cat's pyjamas', and has no especial meaning.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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