Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

My wife was reading me this poem for our kids' homeschool

A city plum is not a plum; A dumb-bell is no bell, though dumb; A statesman's rat is not a rat; A sailor's cat is not a cat; A soldier's frog is not a frog;

Sing Song - Christina Georgina Rossetti

I know what a dumb bell and a captain's log are (weights and a diary), but what's a city plum; what is a statesman's rat; what is a sailor's cat; and what is a soldier's frog?

share|improve this question
add comment

2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

This was homework? Apparently this doggerel ditty was published 1872 by Christina Rossetti...

  1. city plum - rare slang for someone who possesses £100000.

  2. statesman's rat - politician who abandons his party.

  3. sailor's cat - braided naval whip, 'cat-o-nine-tails' or possibly a type of sailor's knot - a 'cat's paw' or 'catshank'.

  4. soldier's frog - decorative fastening made of ornamental braiding which loops around a button.

I never heard of plum for a rich person, but all the others are still current. Not that I knew about frog fasteners until now, and the cat/whip no longer exists in civilised society. Newspapers still sometimes relish reporting political rats, but after all this time they're hardly news any more.

share|improve this answer
    
Wow, that's very interesting (and crazy what they throw in nursery rhymes in the 1800's). I don't think the definitions were important for the kindergarten curriculum, at least I hope they're not. But I can just hear my daughter ask, "if a soldier's cat is not a cat, then what is it?". The book is actually illustrated with a cat with 9 tails, so I had a hankering on that one (not that I knew off hand what a cat-o-nine-tails meant) –  Peter Turner Mar 27 '12 at 4:23
1  
@P. Alan Phillip Turner: Umm... I don't think I'd call it a "nursery rhyme". Probably none of those slang terms would have been considered appropriate for children in Victorian London. But I have to say your choice of kindergarten, and their choice of nursery rhymes, show somewhat exotic tastes! –  FumbleFingers Mar 27 '12 at 4:29
    
Lots of nursery rhymes are alleged to have hidden or second meanings that we no longer think are especially appropriate for children. For example, "According to the Oxford English Dictionary the term 'humpty dumpty' referred to a drink of brandy boiled with ale in the seventeenth century." [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humpty_Dumpty] –  JLG Mar 27 '12 at 13:22
    
@JLG: Yes, I thought about that (specifically, "Ring a Ring o' Roses" and Plague) when I was composing the answer. I shied away from calling it a "nursery rhyme" because it doesn't seem to have a surface-level interpretation appropriate to children, so "doggerel ditty" was the best I could come up with. I think the original target audience was probably the London "tea set/chattering classes" of the day. For today's children it's really just a "tum-ti-tum" rhythmic form with effectively meaningless words. –  FumbleFingers Mar 27 '12 at 15:03
    
For the record, the book is called "Sing Song: A Nursery Rhyme Book" and yeah, half the rhymes seem to be about the death of infants. –  Peter Turner Mar 27 '12 at 15:51
show 3 more comments

I don't wish to take anything away from FumbleFingers' clear and concise answer, but I think frog has more meanings than mentioned. It could certainly be an ornamental braid, and gold-frogged uniforms is quite a common phrase. But a frog is also the term for the fastening on a belt that takes a bayonet or whatever (sometimes sword-frog), which seems more likely in contaxt.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.