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The BBC Radio 4 series “Keywords for our time” examines key phrases currently in use in public debate and political culture. In a recent programme, Helen Lewis, deputy editor of the New Statesman, took a look at the… Read More
When I first started writing this blog I drew up a hit list of topics which I hoped to write about. Most of the entries on this list were no more than the germ of an idea, something language-related which I wanted to know more about. And an early addition was The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, the groundbreaking book by Iona and Peter Opie which documents children’s language in post-war Britain. My librarian parents owned a copy and, as a child, I was fascinated by the idea that someone had paid such attention to the language of the school playground.
So when I read recently that Iona Opie had died at the age of 94, I wanted to find out a bit more about the book which had made such an impression on me. The Opies met during the second world war and married in 1943. When asked what piqued their interest in children’s language, Iona recounted discovering a ladybird on a country walk with her young son and reciting the rhyme “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home / Your house is on fire and your children all gone.” The couple found themselves wondering about the origins of the rhyme and, on finding no satisfactory answers at the public library, set about researching nursery rhymes themselves.
Their approach was painstaking. They worked at home in separate rooms, communicating only by note during working hours. Iona Opie later said it was “like two of us in a very small boat and each had an oar and we were trying to row across the Atlantic.” They amassed a collection of children’s books dating from the 16th to the 20th century, which has been described as the richest library of children’s literature. After a public appeal this collection was obtained by the Bodleian Library at Oxford University to be preserved for future generations.
After initially working on a series of books about nursery rhymes, in the 1950s the couple turned their attention to the oral traditions of children’s language. An appeal for information in the Sunday Times led to over 5000 children from around 70 schools across Britain getting involved in their study. The resulting iconic Lore and Language of Schoolchildren is an unrivalled collection of children’s jokes, riddles, rhymes, rituals, beliefs, and secret spells.
In her introduction to the New York Review Classics edition of the book, Marina Warner states that the Opies “never voice approval or disapproval of the material amassed”. They gather evidence of a linguistic culture which is both complex and cohesive, crediting children for probably the first time with a language and culture distinct from that of adults. Certain terms are particularly important to children. For instance, the Opies document over fifty terms for a “truce” – used to request a break, or respite in playground games. Detailed maps document the usage of these different truce terms across the country.
As well as offering linguistic and anthropological insights, the book provides the casual reader with an enjoyable romp through the world of the child. Who could fail to delight in such rhymes as “Julius Caesar the Roman geezer/Squashed his wife/In a lemon squeezer” or “The sausage is a cunning bird with feathers long and wavy/It swims about the frying pan/And makes its nest in gravy”. As Iona Opie said later, “The happiness a child can find … is more intense than any in adult life and the treasures of childhood which often exist only in the memory are among our most precious possessions.”
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