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You Don’t Say

Every second Sunday in November is International Tongue Twister Day. It’s not a day to get tongue-tied, but rather a time to practice elocution and pronunciation.

Since I’ve lived primarily in Mexico for the past few years, I’ve tried to at least be a little conversant in Spanish. Thank goodness I have a group of kind native Mexicans who speak slowly and actually take the time to help me with the verbiage and pronunciation. None of them can believe that I can’t roll my R’s. In fact, I can’t say I’ve met a single native Spanish speaker who can’t perform this magical tongue-trill exercise. Not one.

That’s just not how my tongue works. Perhaps it’s because I spent many years as a child (every Tuesday afternoon) with my speech therapist, Mrs. Huiey, in the small room next to the cafeteria stage at Carrollton Elementary in Carrollton, Texas. My first-grade teacher identified me as a lisper. Mrs. Huie preferred to say I had a tongue thrust. When I spoke, I don’t think I sprayed everyone around me like Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, but evidently, it was pretty bad. My mother was constantly saying, “Pull your tongue back,” and thus, I was in speech therapy for 8 years.

Mrs. Huie taught me to swallow differently and position my tongue at the bottom of my mouth when I made “s” and “d” sounds. In essence, she gave my tongue a makeover. During my senior year in high school, when I performed the lead in my school’s musical, she sat in the front row for every performance. She told me that I was her greatest achievement as a speech therapist. She went on to become a grade school principal and was an advocate for special education in Carrollton. Check out this tribute to Mrs. Huie’s legacy here. Thank you, Mrs. Huie; you were a miracle worker.

But I still can’t roll my R’s. If I had been born in Mexico rather than Texas, with Spanish as my native language rather than English, and if Mrs. Huie were around, I’d probably still be seeing her every Tuesday afternoon. Alas, some things are just not meant to be.

But I digress. Back to tongue twisters.

Tongue twisters, as every actor or orator will attest, have been around for a long, long time. It takes a lot of practice to keep our speech flowing “trippingly off the tongue,” per Shakespeare. Here are four ageless tongue twisters and their origins.

Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers; A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked; If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?

Peter and his peppers first appeared in 1813 in a book by John Harris entitled Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation. The book was never nominated for any awards, but it did offer classic tongue twisters for each letter of the alphabet.

Several spice historians (yes, there is such a thing) claim that Peter was 18th-century Pierre Poivre, a horticulturist. “Poivre” is the French word for pepper, and piper is the Latin word for pepper. Poivre was a known clove smuggler. But whether he really pickled his peppers and used them to hide contraband cloves is not known. I guess we should just accept this one with a grain of salt.

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck, If a woodchuck could chuck wood?

The Vaudeville actress Fay Templeton gets credit for making woodchucks and woodchucking popular. In 1903, Templeton sang “The Woodchuck Song” in the Broadway musical The Runaways. It never hit the Billboard charts, but the song was popular.

On the scientific, more practical side of it, in 1988, a fish and wildlife technician for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation hypothesized that if a woodchuck could chuck wood (because they really can’t), it could “chuck” about 700 pounds of the stuff. Obviously, it was a slow day.

Sally sells seashells on the seashore. The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure. And if she sells seashells on the seashore, then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

Ah, good old Seashell Sally.

Legend has it that this ditty is a tribute to 19th-century Mary Anning, who was a paleontologist. Anning was an impressive fossil hunter who had many followers, including Charles Dickens. She discovered dinosaur bones and was the first to identify fossilized dinosaur poop. Unfortunately, her male counterparts stole credit for much of her work.

After her death in 1847, many followers claimed that she was the muse behind the seashore rhyme as a way to honor her. Sweet!

I scream, you scream, We all scream for ice cream.

I’ll be the first to admit that most tongues won’t get twisted on this one, but they certainly will get cold.

In 1905, a Pennsylvania company selling ice cream freezers came up with the advertising jingle, “I Scream, You Scream, We all Scream for Ice Cream. This certainly is Ice Cream Weather. Have you a good Ice Cream Freezer?” Although the last part of the slogan doesn’t really do much for me, I love the screaming ice cream part.

In the 1940s, a song using the same phrase was recorded and became a popular jazz standard. It’s been making kids drool and haunting ice cream truck drivers ever since.


So on Sunday, after screaming and ice creaming, if you are looking for a mouthful and aren’t doing anything else, do a few mouth calisthenics by reciting your favorite tongue twisters. In honor of Mrs. Huie, with my tongue pulled back, I’m going to give it a whirl, but just not in Spanish.

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This work by Anel “Pookie” Ryan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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