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As depicted in 1870 by James William Elliott's National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs, the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty" goes as follows:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again

Now, in most if not all illustrations Humpty is portrayed as an egg...

By William Wallace Denslow - Library of Congress [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11121180

Why is this? Because nothing in the four lines of the rhyme depict him as such...

How do we know Humpty Dumpty was an egg?

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    According to the The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, it was originally a riddle, and thus the egg part was the answer. I'll try to dig out a quote from my copy later. – Riker Feb 9 '17 at 21:22
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    I suspect he was portrayed as an egg in some well read work (Possibly Alice Through the Looking Glass) and that was then copied by other authors leading to it becoming standard. – Bellerophon Feb 9 '17 at 21:33
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    The other questions is: How do we know Humpty wasn't the king? – Möoz Feb 10 '17 at 0:33
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    There is a second verse that implies such, though I don't know where it came from or whether it caused or resulted from the popular image of Humpty Dumpty as an egg. – Devsman Feb 10 '17 at 14:03
  • @Devsman If you can get a original and reputable source for that it seems that would be a great answer. – Skooba Feb 10 '17 at 16:41
59

Humpty Dumpty almost certainly wasn't an egg at conception

Humpty Dumpty is over 200 years old, originating in the 1700s.

Our first clue lies in the original phrasing of the poem; the eponymous Humpty Dumpty is not "put back together again" but rather

Four-score Men and Four-score more, Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.

This opens up both literal falling and political falling, while also lacking references to the king, as later versions would.

The first example of Humpty Dumpty being visually presented as an egg comes from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, wherein he argues semantics with Alice. The book, written in 1871, then popularized this personification of Humpty Dumpty -- and led to the "couldn't put Humpty together again" version; Alice specifically calls out the older wording as being "too long for the poetry" within the book.

In the 1700s, a "humpty dumpty" referred to one of two things: either a brewed brandy and ale drink or a short, clumsy person (E. Partridge and P. Beale, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 8th edn., 2002)). Were these the only things the phrase had been attributed to, one could easily conclude it was a morality tale against drunkenness (it was published in Mother Goose's Melody, after all) or a jab at a political figure (with most signs pointing to King Richard III, who had a great fall at Bosworth Field and was a known hunchback).

img1

To further complicate things, there's also rumors of a siege cannon nicknamed Humpty Dumpty used to attack the English town of Colchester (specifically at St-Mary-At-The-Wall) during the English Civil War. All the Royalists couldn't put the cannon back on the wall after the section it was placed on was hit by cannon fire.

img2

In summation, there's no signs that Humpty Dumpty was ever intended to be an egg at all, and the Lewis Carroll interpretation of the rhyme was so popular it stuck.

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    So how did Humpty Dumpty become an egg? – Reinstate Monica Feb 10 '17 at 0:01
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    As per the link (and my knowledge): "The first time the character of Humpty Dumpty was represented explicitly as an egg was in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in 1872." – Academiphile Feb 10 '17 at 6:35
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    @DavidGrinberg Concrete answers to that are a mystery, and Lewis Carroll is, unfortunately, too dead to tweet a Word of God answer. – Carpe CM Feb 10 '17 at 14:48
  • @Skooba the link at the top of the answer. The text is "originating in the 1700s". My quote is found all the way at the end, under Bonus Facts. – Academiphile Feb 10 '17 at 16:45
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    “The first example of Humpty Dumpty being an egg comes from Lewis Carroll's” No, that's not true. It's surely because of him that everybody things of Humpty-Dumpty as an egg now, but the idea did not originate with him. Variations on the “sat on a wall” poem as a riddle whose solution was “an egg” existed before 1870, e.g. 1854. And it's pretty clear when reading Through the Looking-Glass that Carroll expects the reader to associate Humpty-Dumpty with an egg. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Feb 11 '17 at 0:05

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