In Fir Tar Is.

I was leafing idly through the 1951 first edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes when my eye fell on #249:

In fir tar is,
In oak none is,
In mud ells are,
In clay none are.
Goat eat ivy;
Mare eat oats.

A catch which, when said quickly, appears to be in Latin. The joke may be traced back 500 years to a medical manuscript of Henry VI’s time,
‘Is thy pott enty, Colelent? Is gote eate yvy. Mare eate ootys. Is thy cocke lyke owrs?’
The last two lines of the catch form the basis of ‘Maizy Doats’, a swing song contagious in Britain and America in 1943, the words of which were claimed as original.

A number of things caught my attention here. Fake Latin? Hmm, I guess it sounds sort of like “Infertaris, in hoc nonis,” aut similia, but after that it doesn’t sound Latinate to me. The earlier one starts something like “Isti potenti,” but again I get lost. But what really got me was the claim about “Maizy Doats” (a non-rhotic mistake that got corrected to “Mairzy Doats” in later editions, though the snotty “claimed as original” is still there) — really?? Really, apparently; see this account by Dennis Livingston, son of one of the creators of the song:

The song was inspired by Milton Drake, one of my dad’s songwriting partners. Drake had long been familiar with the phrase “mares eat oats, does eat oats,” and so on, which many children learned as a nursery rhyme. These words can be traced back to centuries-old English ditties, one of which proclaimed: “In fir tar is, in oak none is, in mud eel is, in clay none is, goat eat ivy, mare eat oats.” Slide those first words together and you sound like you’re speaking pseudo-Latin!

Early in 1942, Drake suggested that he, my dad and Al Hoffman, the third member of the team, have a go at turning “mares eat oats” into an appropriately nutty song at one of the daily brainstorming sessions they held at the Brill Building in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. It took only a few days of tossing words back and forth, with time out for creative lunch breaks over blintzes and coffee at Lindy’s delicatessen, before they succeeded.

Whodathunkit! (If you’re not familiar with “Mairzy Doats,” here’s The Pied Pipers’ 1944 version; warning: earworm.)


  1. Michael Hendry says

    This reminds me of what is (to my mind) a much better example of English pretending to be Latin, popular among lower-middle-class Catholics in the Midwest 50-70 years ago:

    O sibili si ergo
    fortibus es in ero
    O nobili demis trux
    Si watis enim, cowsendux

    My parents, neither of whom knew any Latin, had a framed, embroidered version in Gothic letters on their wall for years. (Hmmm, I wonder which sibling inherited it – I’m the only Latinist among them, but somehow missed out, unless I have forgotten it in a box somewhere, which seems unlikely.)

    Anyway, people would slyly ask a priest or Latin teacher to translate it, just to watch them flounder. All but two of the words are proper Latin, but the two with Ws in the last line let the cat out of the bag, and none of it makes any continuous sense as Latin. A literal translation would be something like “O, of a hiss, if, therefore / for the strong [plural], you [singular] are, in, I will be / O, for the noble [singular], you [singular] take away, savage[ly] / if, (nonsense), for, (nonsense)”.

    I hope no one will be offended if I provide the “real” English with punctuation for any (purely hypothetical) person here who doesn’t quite get it (we do have a lot of non-native readers). It’s a conversation between two country boys standing by the road:

    “Oh see, Billy, see ‘er go! Forty buses in a row.”
    “Oh no, Billy, dem [= ‘them’] is trucks. See what is in ’em? Cows and ducks!”

    Another version substitutes ‘Onojo’ for ‘O nobili’, making for better sense (Billy and Joe, instead of Billy and another Billy) but worse Latin (a J to go with the Ws). I’ve also seen it with ’causen dux’ (two words) at the end, where ‘dux’ and the first syllable of ’causen’ are both good Latin, though the U in ’causen’ invites mispronunciation.

    I’m surprised to find that this little squib (epigram? it rhymes) doesn’t seem to have been mentioned on Languagehat before – unless I botched my search just now.

    Would it be cruel to try this out on my Latin II class tomorrow?

  2. January First-of-May says

    Oh, I definitely know of this one, though I don’t recall from where exactly – the last line I recall being something along the lines of siuat sinem, causen dux.

  3. My favorite example is Swift’s “Consultation of Four Physicians.” The first line:

    Is his Honor sic? Prae laetus felis Puls. It do es beat veri lota de.

  4. Homme petit d’homme petit, s’attend, n’avale
    Homme petit d’homme petit, à degrés de bègues folles
    Anal deux qui nœuds ours, anal deux qui nœuds s’y mènent
    Coup d’un poux tome petit tout guetteur à gaine.

  5. There are also versions with Sybille, with Civile / Novile, and with Nobile Themis, trux.

  6. Brett: There are more examples of that sort of mock mediaeval French in Luis d’Antin van Rooten’s Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames: The D’Antin Manuscript (1967).

  7. I came across that first rhyme with a last line “Vatis enim, causan dux”.

  8. Polish also has some nonsensical Latinoid nursery rhymes like this one:

    Cracre mia, cret maria,
    Ide nostre, duo miam
    Bolisma tu nore.

    Kra krę mija, kret ma ryja,
    Idę, nos trę, dół omijam,
    Bo lis ma tu norę.

    ‘A floe passes a floe, the mole’s got a snout,
    I walk, I rub my nose, and I bypass this pit,
    For a fox has a hole here.’

  9. Fake latin brings to mind The Kipper Family’s parody of Gaudete…

  10. Lectiles colitorum femi vertrum was the one I learnt — read as læg ti læs kul i to rum, fem i hvert rum = ‘Put ten loads of coal in two rooms, five in each room’.

    Stress and rhythm and even vowel qualities are only slightly off if pronounced as classical Latin (with long i in lectiles, short e in femi).

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Caesar adsum jam forte
    Brutus et erat
    Caesar sic in omnibus
    Brutus sic in at.

  12. Similiter causaque ego ambo te fumant cum de suis = Six militaires cossaques, égaux en beauté, fumant comme des Suisses. I forget where I picked this up long ago.

  13. ə de vivre says

    Well, you know what they say, “In fir tar is, in for a pound.”

    I, at least, appreciated the “translation” of O sibili si ergo… I may be a native English speaker but it was totally opaque to me.

  14. Croatian has a similar “French” rhyme:
    cra va tra vous passé
    telé repom maché

    (in Croatian:
    krava travu pase
    tele repom maše)

    cow grazes grass
    calf swishes [its] tail

  15. My college roommate was inspired by “Pas de lieu aun que nous” to create a whole series of pseudo-French epigrams, but luckily for everyone I have forgotten them.

    (“Paddle your own canoe”)

  16. Surely aune.

  17. I’m VERY surprised nobody has mentioned “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, the Fake Latin phrase made famous by my fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood in her novel THE HANDMAID’S TALE (And made even more famous by the televised version, of course).

    On a related topic, I vaguely remember some (Quebec?) politician giving, in his memoirs, some examples of “Fake Ancient Greek” he and his fellow students came up with…

  18. I’m VERY surprised nobody has mentioned “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum”, the Fake Latin phrase made famous by my fellow Canadian Margaret Atwood in her novel THE HANDMAID’S TALE

    Among Canadians, perhaps, but the One True Version is “Illegitimi non carborundum,” made famous by Vinegar Joe Stilwell during World War II and later by Barry Goldwater; I was certainly familiar with it long before Atwood’s novel.

  19. David Marjanović says

    I’m VERY surprised

    I’m not: it doesn’t mean anything in English when read out loud, you still have to “translate” it to get the joke.

  20. Ukrainian-French: Семен теля пасе, репу жре, а сам блює. I am not good with IPA, and just write it in transliteration in case it helps somebody semEn tel’A pasE rEpu zhre a sam blujE. What’s the French? Maybe this Semaine tel a passé, repu j’aurai [not quite right sound, but I cannot find anything closer that would have been a real French word], assemblé

  21. Part of the significance of the quote in The Handmaid’s Tale is that it’s an old joke, which the commander is familiar with.

  22. January First-of-May says

    Weirdly, Wikipedia apparently provides the “actual Latin translation” as Noli pati a scelestis opprimi, even though the only “actual Latin” version that I am otherwise familiar with is Noli nothis permittere te terere.

    Sadly, I don’t know anywhere remotely near enough Latin to understand either of those phrases (never mind what the difference is), so I am unable to comment further.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    Stuck here only because it relates to the current state of Latinity among The Young People. Last night I went to a thing at our town high school for 11th graders who’d done well enough in whatever foreign language they were studying to be inducted into the relevant honor society. My older daughter was one of about a dozen inducted into the one for Latin. It didn’t surprise me that Spanish had more inductees than the other three languages (Latin/French/Italian – the school district has recently jumped on the trendy Mandarin bandwagon but doesn’t yet have a corresponding honor society up and running) all put together. But I was surprised that the sex-ratio skew for Latin (exactly one boy versus eleven girls inducted) was notably more extreme than for the other languages. In our school as in most others these days, academic achievement in all fields other than the most hardcore of STEM subjects is skewed female, but the female skew for achievement in Spanish/French/Italian was a more reasonable 60/40 or 70/30 sort of advantage.

    Don’t know whether this is a local fluke or a broader pattern – Latin was certainly not a stereotypically girly subject in my own high school days back in the last century, and in fact several of my fellow male Latin students were not effete humanities types but went off to be STEM majors in college while I was fleeing from my youthful promise in math/science to study as many other dead IE languages as I could conveniently manage. I certainly don’t have hard numerical data from back then but impressionistically I would have guessed for my high school that French was the language whose students skewed most heavily female (as against Latin/Spanish/German, which was the competition at that time and place).

  24. @January First-of-May, my school latin gives me this:

    Noli pati a scelestis opprimi — refuse to suffer to be oppressed by rogues
    Noli nothis permittere te terere — refuse to allow bastards to grind you

    The second is clearly closer to the English formulation, but feels stilted.

  25. January First-of-May says

    The gender skew discussion reminds me of our university department’s French class…

    In the official list of people enrolled in it, the gender ratio was about the same as in my year in general (maybe slightly closer to even) – that is, about 3 boys for every girl.
    (I’m not sure why my year was that skewed – perhaps by random chance; other years had more even gender proportions.)

    However, in the actual class, the numbers went exactly the other way – the ratio was 4 girls to one boy.
    The boy, naturally, was me.

    There was actually a really good reason – there were mandatory military-related lessons that everyone eligible for the army had to take, which were somehow put in the same slot as the French class.
    The girls were not eligible, of course; and neither was I, due to my really poor vision (-9 diopters; not sure what that comes out to in the American system).

    Ironically, I had originally chosen German for my second language; but only five people enrolled in the German class, and four of them dropped it in the first month (leaving only me) – and the teacher said that she wasn’t going to continue a full class just for one guy.
    I ended up switching to French, and didn’t realize that “no second language” was also an option until much later (not that I actually wanted that one).

    …Ultimately, I sucked at French, and got a 4 out of 10 for the course (the lowest possible passing grade).

  26. Stephen C. Carlson says

    Speaking of fake Latin, I’d like to be the first to mention semper ubi sub ubi.

  27. Are there really high school honor societies for every foreign language in America? When I graduated (almost a quarter century ago… yikes!), my high school had only one language honor society. It was for German, ΔΕΦ, Deutsche Ehrenverbindung; the irony of using Greek letters for a German honor society seemed to be lost on most of the inductees.

    Aside from one cheesy induction ceremony, there were no ΔΕΦ activities. (There was a German Club at the school, but that was entirely separate.) After the induction, the only thing membership got me was an enormous gold sticker on my high school diploma. Our diplomas were small, postcard sized, and there was just barely room to fit the ΔΕΦ decal in one corner; moreover, if there had been more than three honor society chapters, plus the state honors seal, there would not have been room to fit them all if a student earned too many. (I noted after receiving mine that the level of rigor and accomplishment associated with the four stickers on the four corners of the diploma were inversely correlated with the size of the the gold seals involved.)

  28. @ J.W Brewer: Maybe the change in the gender ratio for Latin you describe is due to developments in the status of Latin. It used to be a language that was a pre-requirement for studying prestigious courses like Medicine or Law, but now it’s just a language course without even the practical applicability of using it for business or travel. When I went to school 40 years ago, the Latin requirements for university in Germany had already been loosened, but there still were some and the language also still had a certain prestige; and at the Gymnasium I went to, although it had a mathematical – scientific orientation, the only available second foreign languages were Latin and French. Nowadays many schools have dropped Latin and it has become a niche subject. So previously boys would take it up because they wanted to study Law or Medicine, or because it was the language an academic was supposed to learn; nowadays there is not much incentive than interest in language learning, which seems to be higher in girls, at least in school settings.

  29. David Marjanović says

    Not much loosening in Austria, where the Latin teachers have a remarkably strong lobby. Ancient Greek has become a niche subject, though, that most Gymnasien don’t offer.

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    @Brett, there may have been some credential inflation (and/or increased focus on credentialism for college-admission-stuffing purposes). When I was in high school there was AFAIK only the Nat’l Honor Soc’y, rather than a bunch of additional topic-specific ones. I took German as well as Latin (both languages since dropped from the curriculum) but there was no ΔΕΦ. The high school where I live now (with one of my kids currently enrolled and another due to enter in the fall after finishing middle school this spring) seems to have eight. (NHS + math/science/music and 4 languages). My old high school per its website, which may be out of date or incomplete, is now up to three (NHS + science + Spanish) but our traditional rival school in the same district is per website up to eight. The Latin-themed one my firstborn was just inducted into is just billed as a chapter of the Junior Classical League but my recollection from the early ’80’s is that the annual Delaware Junior Classical League Olympics (where we were at the time typically one of the two strongest competitors) were open to anyone enrolled in Latin at any school in the state without any minimum bar of achievement or formal induction ceremony.

  31. Brett, did you guys ever hold a ΔΕΦ jam?

  32. J.W. Brewer says

    Apparently you can get NJCL Latin Honor Soc’y seals for the kids’ diplomas for a quarter a piece wholesale. Commensurate with the extraordinarily high property taxes we pay, our high school splurged and got the kids the patches that run for $1.10 each wholesale. Not sure if my daughter has any actual articles of clothing in her wardrobe (like one of those sleeveless denim vests sported by members of one-percenter motorcycle clubs?) to sew her patch onto.

  33. David Marjanović says

    “Vestra causa tota nostra est”? Estne causa nostra?!?

  34. @Rodger C: I think somebody made that joke at the time.

    @J.W. Brewer: I don’t think the Junior Classical League is an honor society in the same sense. When I was in college, my wife was president of the Senior Classical League in Massachusetts; the purpose of the Senior League was to provide college students to run the state JCL events. I don’t think there were scholastic or achievement requirements to join the JCL or participate in the Latin trivia competitions, but I’m not certain. (The National Forensic League, of which I was also a member in high school, was similar in that anybody could participate in the speech and debate tournaments. However, for membership in the league, you had to accumulate a certain number of points in competition. You could get enough points for membership from about two tournaments though.)

    One of the other members of the Massachusetts Senior Classical League along with my wife was the former national president of the Junior Classical League. However, he had apparently been installed in that position illegitimately. At the national JCL convention, the national president and vice president were caught by a chaperone having sex, and they were replaced by the adult advisors by two other students who were there at the conference.

  35. -9 diopters; not sure what that comes out to in the American system

    There is no precise correlation between correction and visual acuity, especially for myopia as extreme as that, but it is probably somewhere between 20/1000 and 20/2000. That is, you can resolve only the detail at a distance of 20 feet (meters, inches, cubits, whatever) that a normally-sighted person could resolve at 1000 to 2000 feet.

    the irony of using Greek letters for a German honor society

    I don’t see what’s ironic about it. In the 19C, most scholars of Greek were Germans.

  36. most scholars of Greek were Germans

    But it doesn’t explain anything! If it were the other way around, most scholars of German were Greeks, than I can understand…

  37. J.W. Brewer says

    @Brett, apparently the honor society/ies (there’s one for Greek too) are a special subset of the NJCL, perhaps of comparatively recent vintage, and frankly advertised as of use largely for college-admissions purposes.

  38. @J.W. Brewer: I suspect that the JCL honor societies are relatively new, or I would have heard about them from my wife and her SCL friends. Moreover, I discovered there is actually another Latin honor society that was founded in 1929. I Googled a bit and found a lot of high school Web pages referencing one honor society or the other (and a few that seemed to be confused about which was which).

  39. Greg Pandatshang says

    Goat eat ivy;
    Mare eat oats.

    I would say “goats eat ivy, mares eat oats” or “the goat eats ivy, the mare eats oats”. Anybody have any idea why this little poem uses the singular and a subjunctive (or otherwise undeclined?) verb?

  40. John Cowan says

    Inscribed on a wooden post in the American West in the 19C:


    (My Latin teacher taught us that.)

  41. I’m loving this blog which I came across on looking up “In fir tar is….” from William Carleton’s hilarious account of Shane Fadh’s Wedding, first published in 1842. He uses “…mare eat hay”
    My Irish great aunt used to recite this many years ago!

  42. Glad you found it!

  43. David Marjanović says

    What is emul, and what – I’ve come across the phenomenon before but never tried to find out – is an honor society?

  44. As I remember, it’s a photo op for the yearbook, nothing more. I don’t even remember it as a line on a college application.

    Were there honor societies that did things?

  45. Honor society.


  46. David Eddyshaw says

    There is no precise correlation between correction and visual acuity

    Indeed not; this is comparing apples and oranges.

    MInus 9 dioptres is perfectly compatible with 6/6 (or, for you Americans, 20/20) visual acuity with appropriate glasses/contacts/whatever, and of course for near objects a high myope is at a positive advantage over the poor emmetrope, especially as they age.

    Except for refractive surgeons (avoid them, Hatters: they don’t have your interests at heart), ophthalmologists regard refractive errors as a mere nuisance, getting in the way of finding out what the visual acuity really is. (High myopes can end up with retinal problems, but that’s a different issue.)

  47. Lars Mathiesen says

    my interests: That’s what I always suspected, I’ve avoided them like the plague.

  48. David Marjanović says

    Were there honor societies that did things?

    The very short German article, which doesn’t even try to translate Honor Society, says Eta Kappa Nu (for electric engineers and computer scientists) serves the “Vernetzung (engl. Networking)” of its members. So there’s one whose members actually meet and steer jobs toward each other, like the association of conservative student associations (Cartellverband) in Austria.

  49. January First-of-May says

    MInus 9 dioptres is perfectly compatible with 6/6 (or, for you Americans, 20/20) visual acuity with appropriate glasses/contacts/whatever, and of course for near objects a high myope is at a positive advantage over the poor emmetrope, especially as they age.

    As someone with -9, I agree that I see quite well (maybe not 20/20, but well) in appropriate glasses (…until they get dirty, but even then it’s usually not too bad), and indeed can see near objects very nicely (especially when I take my glasses off). My mom frequently asks me to read the fine print on product labels.

    Interestingly, when my glasses get cleaned after a period of dirtiness, I get a weird effect where it feels like my vision had been put on a sharpness filter.
    I’m guessing that after a few days of dirty glasses, my visual system adjusts to the resulting slight fuzziness, so when the dirt gets removed…

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