I wasn’t a half hour in the door from the airport when my 92-year-old father turned to me and said :
Something came into my mind today and I wanted to ask you about it.
Oh oh. God only knew where this one was going. I had a quick think and couldn’t come up with anything I’d said or done recently that would give rise to boss questioning me.
And then he started:
A was an archer who shot at a frog
B was a butcher who killed a wild hog
C was a captain, all covered in lace
D was a drunkard who had a red face
E was an esquire with pride on his brow
F was a farmer who followed the plough
G was a gamester who had but ill luck
H was a hunter how followed a buck
I was a innkeeper who loved much the booze
J was a joiner who built up a house
K was King William who once governed this land
L was a lady who had a white hand
M was a miser who hoarded up gold
N was a nobleman gallant and bold
O was an oyster wench who went about town
P was a parson who wore a black gown
Q was a queen who was fond of good flip
R was a robber who wanted a whip
S was a sailor who spent all he got
T was a tinker who mended a pot
U was a userer, a miserable elf
V was vitner who drank all himself
W was a watchman who guarded the door
X was expensive and so became poor
Y was a youth who didn’t like school
Z was a zany, a poor harmless fool
Did you know that? he asked.
I’d never heard it before. It was something he had learned more than 80 years ago as a child. And it had just popped into his head. I Googled it and found a few versions that vary in the telling. In one, I was an Italian, O an organboy, P a policeman, and Q a quaker.
It’s Tom Thumb’s Alphabet. The earliest printed record of it is 1712. As it grew in popularity, some lines were considered to have a harmful effect on children. Y was a youth, that did not love school was one example. So the alphabet was replaced by that by Benjamin Harris, published in the New England Primer.
It brought to mind the recent hoo-ha about Fairy Tale of New York and It’s Cold Outside. Even in the 1700s words and phrases were outliving their usefulness. But that said, perhaps the idle fool being whipped at school would be lost in the telling today, too.
This week, as Christmas in Ireland is in full swing, I’m grateful for the flights of fancy on which my dad’s memories take me.