One for Sorrow (Nursery Rhyme) about Magpies

Posted on: 24 February 2021

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One for Sorrow (Nursery Rhyme) about Magpies

"One for Sorrow" is a well-known, traditional children's nursery rhyme that relates to magpies. The nursery rhyme itself is about superstition and the number of birds seen at a single time and what that means - good or bad luck.

From the many species of birds in the UK, magpies are the only birds present in most superstitions. Throughout Europe and the United States, the bird is considered as being evil, but in other parts of the world such as China and Korea, magpies are associated with positivity.

What is the One for Sorrow nursery rhyme?

The most common version of this nursery rhyme is as follows:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.

Alternative versions of One for Sorrow

Depending on where you are from in the country or world can mean different variations of the famous nursery rhyme. For example, people from Lancashire have a version that has 6 more lines, which counts all the way up to 13.

Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss,
Eleven for health,
Twelve for wealth,
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.

The history of the One for Sorrow nursery rhyme

The origins of this rhyme are connected with the magpie, which is associated with bad luck in some cultures. In the UK, this dates back to the early parts of the 16th Century.

The first recorded version of the nursery rhyme dates all the way back to 1780, where there was a note in Observations on Popular Antiquities by John Brand.

John Brand was a clergyman in the Church of England and an antiquarian - dealer in antique and rare books. In 1784 he was made Secretary to the Society of Antiquaries of London. 'Popular antiquities' became later known as folklore in 1846 by William John Thoms.

Back then, it comprised of only 4 lines:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral,
And four for birth.

The rhyme was then extended by 3 lines and added to Proverbs and Popular Saying of the Seasons in 1846 by an English merchant and collector of folklore named Michael Aislabie Denham.

Five for heaven,
Six for hell,
Seven for the devil, his own self.

Magpie TV Theme Song

Some of the popularity for the 'One for Sorrow' nursery rhyme can be attributed to the popular children's TV show Magpie, which was on the air from 1978 to 1980. Although it shares similarities at the start, the magpie tv theme has the tenth line, 'You must not miss', which refers to not miss the next episode of the series.

It goes as follows:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told,
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.

The TV theme was composed by The Murgatroyd Band - an alias for the Spencer Davis Group. This was shortly after Steve Winwood left to join Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Ric Grech.

In places like America, where magpies are less common, this nursery rhyme can often be associated with other crow family members, such as; jackdaws, ravens, and crows.

About Magpies

Magpies are considered to be one of the most intelligent species of birds in the world. From afar, they look black and white, but up close in sunlight, they display a beautiful purplish-blue colour on their tail and wings.

Their name comes from two words, 'mag' and 'pie'. 'Mag' implies chatter, and 'pie' refers to the plumage of the bird. Some time ago, 'pied' was a term used to set out a mixture of colours. When you put both the words together, you get a loud, chattering bird with black, white and iridescent plumage.

Why are magpies associated with bad omens and superstitions?

According to religion, the magpie was the only bird species not to comfort or mourn at the crucifixion of Jesus. Since then, magpies have been linked with negativity and bad luck. Other stories say that magpies refused to go into the ark with Noah and instead just sat on top, swearing whilst the world went underwater. Each of the religious stories portrays magpies can't be trusted.

Magpies are known for stealing shiny things, such as jewellery and deceiving others - both things link them with being evil. Other superstitions are linked to their omnivore diet, which means they can often be found eating dead animals.

With all this ill-omen, bad luck and negativity surrounding these birds, people over the years have come up with solutions to show respect to these birds in the hope that they will not present them with bad luck. Saluting or waving to magpies is a common superstition, with some people believing that greeting these birds will help keep bad luck away.

Whether you're superstitious yourself or think its all a load of rubbish, this tradition has been kept for centuries to try and keep bad luck away.

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