Who is Humpty Dumpty?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Humpty Dumpty is a character in a well-known English nursery rhyme. The rhyme reads: “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 back together again.” Many English speakers are familiar with this rhyme, since it is often included in collections of rhymes, most notably the Mother Goose collection.

Lewis Carroll created Humpty Dumpty.
Lewis Carroll created Humpty Dumpty.

Most modern English speakers assume that Humpty Dumpty is an anthropomorphized egg, not least because many illustrated children's books depict Humpty as an egg. However, at the time the rhyme was coined, “humpty dumpty” was a slang term for someone short, fat, and clumsy, as evidenced in numerous other rhymes and poems dating to around the same period.

Some people have also suggested that Humpty Dumpty may be a stand-in for a real historical figure, such as the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey or the English King Richard III. Originally, the rhyme was posed as a riddle, but since the rhyme has become so well-known, it is rarely presented as a riddle. In the riddle, the answer was “an egg,” and the “humpty dumpty” was included as a reference to distract people.

Humpty Dumpty has become so well known that he has appeared on his own. Through the Looking Glass, an 1871 book by Lewis Carroll, features a strange interaction with him, and he has even been referenced in court cases and judicial decisions. The line “all the king's horses and all the king's men” has also spawned a number of cultural references, with numerous books, songs, and films including the line.

He also sometimes appears in illustrations for children's books as a background figure who is instantly recognizable, as eggs are unusual characters, even in nursery rhymes. In many depictions, Humpty Dumpty is shown in a neat suit with a bowtie, giving him a rather fastidious appearance.

This literary figurehead is also borrowed as an illustrative figure for the Humpty Dumpty Association, an organization which focuses on prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of traumatic brain injuries. Brain injuries are often more problematic than other physical injuries because the brain cannot be put back together again after a catastrophic injury.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I would really like to know what that riddle was.

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