Alan Alexander Milne (1882 – 1956) was an English author, known in all corners of the world thanks to his books about a teddy bear called Winnie-the-Pooh. He also wrote poetry. I chose his verse The Three Foxes to share with you today because it reminds me of a curious linguistic anecdote.
The English word ‘cherry‘ is derived from ‘cerise’ – ‘cherry’ in French. Ending in /z/, it sounded plural to an English ear, though is actually singular. Not quite illogically, English people thought, ‘Well, if ‘cerise’, which after its arrival to Britain had become ‘cherries’, is plural, then the singular must be… ‘cherry’!’ This is how we ended up with yet another erroneous word.
In The Three Foxes A. A. Milne explores this theme and uses bespoke plurals for rhyme and humour.
Once upon a time there were three little foxes
Who didn’t wear stockings, and they didn’t wear sockses,
But they all had handkerchiefs to blow their noses,
And they kept their handkerchiefs in cardboard boxes.
And they lived in forest in three little houses,
And they didn’t wear coats, and they didn’t wear trousies.
They ran through the woods on their little bare tootsies,
And they played “Touch Last” with a family of mouses.
They didn’t go shopping in the High Street shopses,
But caught what they wanted in the woods and copses.
They all went fishing, and they caught three wormses,
They went out hunting, and they caught three wopses.
They wen to a Fair, and they all won prizes —
Tree plum-puddingses and three mince-pieses.
They rode on elephants and swang on swingses,
And hit three coco-nuts at coco-nut shieses.
That’s all I know of three little foxes
Who kept their handkerchiefs in three little boxes.
They lived in the forest in three little houses,
But they didn’t wear coats and they didn’t wear trousies,
And they didn’t wear stockings and they didn’t wear sockses.
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