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Heavy Words Lightly Thrown
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A librarian by night and a London tour guide by day, Roberts deploys an informal style of scholarship to dazzling effect, transforming a catalogue of familiar nursery rhymes into a treasure trove of tantalizingly slippery archaisms, hidden etymological layers, arcane associations and buried meanings. Having explained how the Victorians sanitized nursery rhymes' traditionally earthy content, Roberts attends to each ditty separately, printing obscure variants and tracing historical references, from British constitutional history to bygone pagan customs. Unlocking the secret meanings of the past, Roberts also finds plenty of refreshingly straightforward modern-day analogies for the nursery rhymes-the chanted taunts of the average British soccer fan illustrate certain rhymes' original tone and purpose. In a fluidly digressive style, he debunks accepted theories and confidently asserts his own. His reading of "Hark, Hark, the Dogs Do Bark," for example, starts out by describing Elizabethan mass vagrancy, proceeds to anatomize 17th-century anti-Dutch sentiment and the etymology of the word "beggar," and winds up with a spirited commentary on New Age travelers. Roberts's intimate knowledge of London history is perfectly suited to his discussions of "London Bridge Is Falling Down" and "Pop Goes the Weasel." As any good historian of oral culture ought, Roberts intelligently admits that many rhymes have open-ended meanings subject to multiple interpretations. This is better than history lite-it's history made delightful. (Aug. 18) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

Humpty Dumpty was a cannon perched on a church wall in Colchester, England, and the cockles in "Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary" were actually cuckolds. These little nuggets and more appear in South London librarian Roberts's study of nursery rhymes, begun as a self-published project in England and now slated for a big push here. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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