One For Sorrow

Magpies and Counting Rhymes

The Magpie (Pica pica), with its striking black and white plumage, is one of the most distinctive British birds. And given that this bird's bold patterns of black and white feathers make it stand out wherever one alights, it is perhaps not surprising that sighting such a noticeable bird should be widely considered an omen of something or other. I say something or other, because the magpie enjoys something of a mixed reputation; it doesn't have the friendly, cosy reputation enjoyed by the blackbird, nor quite the sinister aura of its near relatives crows and ravens. Instead the magpie is somewhere in between, a cheery bird, a bit of a cheeky chappie, but also something of a rogue - after all they are famed for their love of stealing bright, shiny objects.

Now many birds have various folk meanings attached to them, indeed there are whole branches of divination relating to interpreting sightings of birds. A common British superstition is that sighting a magpie is considered to be ill luck, and it is commonly held in many regions that saluting the bird will ward off the misfortune. However we should note that this applies only to spotting a lone magpie, for according to old folk rhymes the number of magpies you see signifies different things.

It is often said that the first recorded instances of one of these magpie counting rhymes is found in an old book on folklore, indeed one of the early pioneering works in the field, Observations on Popular Antiquities by John Brand, published in 1777. However this is not true, for the original edition makes no mention of magpies. Actually the first recorded magpie rhyme appears in a later edition published in 1842, that was significantly enlarged and annotated by Sir Henry Ellis. Ellis added a wealth of new material and in his extensive notes quotes a different 18th century source on the subject of magpie lore -

In the Supplement to Johnson and Steeven's Shakespeare, 8 vols, Lond, 1780, vol. ii. p, 706, it is said that the Magpie is called, in the West, to this hour, a Magatipie, and the import of the augury is determined by the number of birds that are seen together:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral
And four for birth.

A mere four years later, another 19th century folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham would gives us an enlarged variant version of this rhyme in his book Proverbs and Popular Saying of the Seasons (1846) -

According to the number of magpies you see at one and the same time when going a journey, etc., you may calculate your luck as follows:-

One for sorrow,
Two for luck (varia. mirth);
Three for a wedding,
Four for death (varia. birth);
Five for silver.
Six for gold;
Seven for a secret.
Not to be told;
Eight for heaven,
Nine for ____ ,
And ten for the Devil's own sell !

Some years later, a very similar Scottish version was noted by E. Cobham Brewer in his famous reference work, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898), an almost compressed Cliffs' Notes version from north of the border -

One’s sorrow, two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding, four’s a birth,
Five’s a christening, six a dearth,
Seven’s heaven, eight is hell,
And nine’s the, devil his ane sel’

Of course it is from these old rhymes that we get the traditional British version that became well known in the 19th and 20th centuries, and that I'm sure most of you are familiar with -

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.

However where things get somewhat muddled is when we come to the matter of additional verses. What pray tell does seeing eight or nine magpies foretell? If you ask some one who grew up in the '70s, they may well give you these additional lines -

Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss

Now as it happens, these extra verses are not from the annals of folklore, but from a popular childrens TV show. Launched in 1968, and running until 1980, ITV's Magpie was a long running magazine show for kids, whose mascot was a cartoon magpie called Murgatroyd. The show's theme tune was written and performed by the Murgatroyd Band, who were actually moonlighting members do the Spencer Davis Group, who adapted some regional variations to create the lyrics.

The lyrics seems to mainly derived from a Lancashire variant version which features elements of the Scottish version recorded by Brewer and adds a few more numbers into the mix -

Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss
Eleven for health
Twelve for wealth
Thirteen beware it’s the devil himself.

Now it is sometimes claimed that the popularity of the Magpie TV show meant that traditional regional variantswere wiped out by the nationally broadcast theme tune lyrics. However whenever the subject of the magpie counting rhyme is mentioned, plenty of folks are keen to share variations, in particular relating to numbers from eight and above. For example, a common one is -

Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a time of joyous bliss

Also still quite well-known is this version that covers you for seeing up to a dozen magpies -

Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a letter,
Eleven for worse
And twelve for better

In Warwickshire, they have something similar, and count magpies over seven like this -

Eight bring wishing
Nine bring kissing
Ten, the love my own heart's missing!

While in the grand county of Yorkshire, apparently this version is still alive well (presumably in playgrounds judging from the last line) -

Eight you live
Nine you die
Ten you eat a bogey pie!

Another somewhat rude version - and therefore no doubt popular with kids - goes like this -

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for rich,
Six for poor,
Seven for a bitch,
Eight for a whore,
Nine for a funeral,
Ten for a dance,
Eleven for England,
Twelve for France

Somewhat more family friendly versions of this variant are well-known too. One just goes up to seven, with the bitch becoming a witch, while folk singer Maddie Prior, singer with Steeleye Span, gave us this version in a song entitled Magpie on her solo LP Seven for Old England (2008) -

One for sorrow
Two for joy
Three for a wedding
Four for a boy
Five for a fiddler
Six for a dance
Seven for Old England
and Eight for France

And so, while few these days put any store in the alleged prophetic pronouncements concerning the number of magpies you may see, certainly the associated counting rhymes continue to live on. They have survived being turned into a TV theme and rock records, and no doubt will carry on spawning new variants for a good few years yet...

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