Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear: The Long History of a Jump Rope Rhyme

One of the most popular, and fascinating, jump rope rhymes/games out there, known all over the English-speaking world:

Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around
Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground
Teddy bear, teddy bear, go upstairs
Teddy bear, teddy bear, say your prayers
Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn out the light
Teddy bear, teddy bear, say good night!

Not just a chant but an activity – the jumper turns around, touches the ground, etc. at the corresponding line, running away from the rope on the last line. It’s been recorded as “Shirley Temple turn around,” as well as “Charlie Chaplin turn around,” etc, as well as any number of others. Dozens of variations have been recorded in the last century.


(or check a local store)
“Teddy Bear” is by far the most common version today (and has been since about the 1920s), but the rhyme itself goes back to before anyone called toy bears Teddy Bears (which was a reference to Teddy Roosevelt, which you already know if you’ve read The Smart Aleck’s Guide to American History) (or, well, any other history book). Exactly how far back the rhyme goes is hard to tell, but if I had to guess, I’d try to connect it to an 18th century nursery rhyme or something – in fact, certain versions MAY connect it to one particular 18th century nursery rhyme that MAY connect it to ancient murder ballads. There’s no way to prove it, but it’s a pretty entertaining theory. Hear me out on this:

A version dated 1912 goes:

Ladybug, ladybug, turn around
ladybug, ladybug, touch the gound

While “butterfly, butterfly” was probably the most common opening by the 1910s, “lady,” “old lady,” “ladybug” and “ladybird” were also common. This MAY connect it back to one of the creepest nursery rhymes ever to be paraphrased in a Tom Waits song:

lady bird, lady bird, fly away home
your house is on fire, your children are all gone
all except one, that’s little ann
she’s hiding under a frying pan.

(note – this is also sometimes listed as “butterfly, butterfly,” and, as with any self respecting nursery rhyme, there are many variations).

The rhyme goes back to at least the 1740s, and by the 1950s, it was a common rhyme to say if you found a ladybug on the way to school. Now, I try not to get into nursery rhyme origins – most of the ones you hear are guesses at best and nonsense at worst – but this one seems like it almost HAS to have some sort of hidden (or long-lost) meaning. One 1902 folklore journal suggested that butterflies were, in some superstitions, manifestations of someone’s soul, which might mean that we can connect “Teddy Bear Teddy Bear” back to all of those ancient murder ballads where people come back as a talking bird (though it might also just be plain old BS; the best explanation I could find was that it was a rhyme about smoking bugs out of your house, which is probably more sensible than assigning anything mystical to it).

So maybe it doesn’t go back to murder ballads, but it may also hold a clue to one of the great linguistic mysteries of the 20th century. Here’s a version that was published in 1909:

Butterfly, butterfly turn around
Butterfly, butterfly touch the ground
Butterfly, butterfly show your shoe
Butterfly, butterfly twenty three to do!

The interesting thing here is the phrase “twenty three to do.” In the 1920s, “twenty three skidoo” was popular slang term for “to leave quickly,” as the jumper presumably did at that point in the rhyme. Now, exactly where that phrase came from is one of the great mysteries of American slang. There are plenty of theories out there, and some of them are charming, but none are particularly convincing. If this version of the rhyme does date to much earlier than 1909 (and for a rhyme to be published when it was brand new would be fairly unusual), that would strongly suggest that “twenty three skidoo” was based on a mispronunciation of “twenty three to do.” Of course, this begs the question of what the phrase “twenty three to do” was all about (if, in fact, it pre-dated “twenty three skidoo” in the first place). In 1926, a book was pulblished listing the rhyme as ending withOld Woman, twenty three skidoo!. By then, going around saying “23 skidoo” as often as possible was a national craze. Could it have started with “23” being a cue to get out during a jump rope rhyme?

Getting back to the present era and out of the realm of speculation, in the 1990s a “taunt” version showed up on the cartoon “Recess:”

Ashley, Ashley, turn around
Ashley, Ashley, touch the ground
Ashley, Ashley, in a skirt
Ashley, Ashley, go eat dirt!

I’d be interested to see if the fact that it was on TV has made this become more popular as a “taunt” than a jump rope rhyme; the media’s impact on this stuff is always an interesting x factor.

As a parting note, when I was in kindergarten, my music teacher taught us a musical version that I believe went like this:

Little green ghost,turn around
Little green ghost,turn around
Little green ghost,turn around
Little green ghost,turn around
Halloween is coming

I think there were other verses about touching the ground, etc. The melody was sort of like Skip to My Lou, only slowed down to a dirge. I thought it was scary, until my friend Ben rewrote it as:

Little green ghost, cut the cheese….

I thought this was even funnier after someone told me what “cut the cheese” meant.

So, does “Teddy bear teddy bear” form a link in a chain that goes back to ancient murder ballads? Does it hold the key to the origin of a 20th century slang term? What other variations went around? Leave a comment!

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9 Comments

  1. Steve

    A possible explanation for the phrase "23 skidoo" comes from the updrafts on the sidewalks surrounding New York's Flatiron Building. When it was constructed – circa 1902 — getting a gaze at a girl's gams was quite exciting. The building stands at the intersection of Fifth and Broadway at 23rd Street. Which now leaves us with the question, "where did the 'skidoo' come from?"

    Reply
  2. Adam Selzer

    Steve – I've heard that explanation. Certainly the phrase goes back to before the 20s (it came up in the Titanic hearings), but I always thought the Flatiron building theory was more charming than convincing.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    I realise this was posted more than a year ago, but nevertheless . . . our schoolyard version (Ontario, Canada, in the early 90's) was similar to yours, but ended with:

    "Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, tie your shoe;
    Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, that will do"

    The "new" girl, from a different school, knew it as "show your shoe", like in your Butterfly example above.

    Reply
  4. Anonymous

    My version was similar but I remember "Teddy bear, Teddy Bear tie your shoe" was before "go up the stairs" but i can't remember what came after "tie your shoe" to rhyme with it. We also didn't have the "say your prayers" line.

    (Toronto, Ontario, early 2000s)

    Reply
  5. Anonymous

    GREG & STEVE

    TEDDY BEAR TEDDY BEAR TURN AROUND
    TEDDY BEAR TEDDY BEAR TOUCH THE GROUND
    TEDDY BEAR TEDDY BEAR SHINE YOUR SHOES
    TEDDY BEAR TEDDY BEAR CLAP ONE TWO

    TEDDY BEAR TEDDY BEAR CLIMB THE STAIRS
    TEDDY BEAR TEDDY BEAR COMB YOUR HAIR
    TEDDY BEAR TEDDY BEAR TURN OFF THE LIGHTS
    TEDDY BEAR TEDDY BEAR SAY GOOD NIGHT

    Reply
  6. Anonymous

    Los Angeles 50's – 60's

    We started with:

    Not last night
    But the night before
    24 robbers came knocking
    At my door
    As I went — OUT (jump out)
    To let them — IN (jump in)
    This is what they said to me:

    Then it was either : Lady, lady etc
    Teddy bear, Teddy bear etc
    or Spanish Dancer etc
    ending with Goodnight

    Reply
  7. stella

    With ours, two girls turned the jump rope and a third jumped. And it wasn't a Teddy Bear – it was a "Spanish dancer".

    It wasn't last night but the night before
    when twenty four robbers came knocking at my door
    I ran out to see who it was
    But I caaaaame back in
    And this is what they said to me:
    Spanish dancer, turn around
    Spanish dancer, touch the ground
    Spanish dancer, do the kangaroo
    Spanish dancer, that's all for you

    You start just jumping rope. At "I went out" you run outside the rope, at "But I caaaaame back in", you go back in. ("Came" was drawn out as long as it took you to find the right moment to go back in the rope).
    At "turn around", you turned around, at "touch the ground", you did that, at "do the kangaroo" you hopped on one foot, and at "that's all for you!" you ran out again.

    Columbus, Texas, mid 60's.

    Reply
    1. kodi

      we sang it a bit different in California…………we also jumped double dutch rope and did as the chant told us

      not last night but the night before
      27 robbers came a knockin’ at my door
      as I ran out
      they ran in
      this is what they said to me……..
      Spanish dancer turn around
      Spanish dancer touch the ground
      Spanish dance count like this
      a one, a two a the a four

      then we would keep jumping rope until we were out
      other times it would end with
      Spanish dancer jump real fast
      one, two , three, four,……….we would do hot peppers until we got out Those were the days! yea 60’s

      Reply
  8. phoebe isaacson

    I knew the ending as
    Teddy bear teddy bear go to school,
    Read a book and do not look
    Then count pages.

    San fransicso California, 2000s

    Reply

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