Derry-O (The farmer in the dell)

MCL

Senior Member
English, U.S.
Can anyone tell me what on earth is meant by Derry-O in the children's song 'The farmer in the dell'?

One of my English students just asked me what Derry meant. I assumed DAIRY, but upon looking up the lyrics find that it is indeed Derry!
 
  • owlman5

    Senior Member
    English-US
    M-W's unabridged dictionary says that it is a shortened form of "Londonderry"*:

    Etymology: from Londonderry, county borough in Ireland
    1 : of or from the county borough of Londonderry, Northern Ireland : of the kind or style prevalent in Londonderry
    2 : of or from County Londonderry, Northern Ireland : of the kind or style prevalent in County Londonderry


    *
    "derry." Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002.
     
    Last edited:

    Copyright

    Senior Member
    American English
    Londonderry was the first name that popped into my mind. Wiki notes regional variations without specifically mentioning Derry.

    Variations

    Like most children's songs, there are geographic variations.

    In the United Kingdom it is known as "The Farmer's In His Den'", and progresses through the farmer, wife, child, nurse, dog, ending with a bone, which is then vigorously patted. The 'Hi-Ho, the derry-o' is variously replaced with "Ee-i, tiddly-i" in London, 'Ee-i, andio' (for instance in Northern England), and 'Ee-i, ee-i' (for instance in the West Country).
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    Yes, I wouldn't take these things in songs too seriously: I think of them as nonsense words but wikipedia calls them non-lexical vocables.

    I've also heard versions with 'Hi ho and merry oh' and 'Ee I addy oh'.
     

    MCL

    Senior Member
    English, U.S.
    You folks are great! Your replies were just what I was looking for, and interesting besides. Thanks for the help!
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    In my part of the world, this game is known as "The farmer wants a wife".
    There is no mention of a den, or a dell.
    The relevant phrase goes "Hey ho ma-deary O" or something that sounds approximately like that.

    I live about 80 miles from Derry/Londonderry and to my knowledge nobody involved in this game has ever associated it with the Maiden City.
    I should add, of course, that countless songs in Irish culture include lines that are completely meaningless. Indeed, we have an entire category of ethnic music consisting of nothing but rhythmic and euphonic sounds - check out lilting.

    So you'll find lines in Irish songs rendered in various ways such as "Whack foll the daddy-o" " Whack for the daddy-o" "whack for the daddy 'ol" "Whack for my daddy, oh" ... ... ... ...

    I think the point I'm skirting around is that there are many variations of this rhyme, and this particular part of it is a rhythmic, euphonic filler - not intended to have any meaning.
     

    MCL

    Senior Member
    English, U.S.
    Hello Pan - good to see you!
    Thanks the additional information.
    Your comments are always appreciated by me.
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    The Oxford English Dictionary defines "derry" as "A meaningless word in the refrains of popular songs; hence, a ballad or set of verses." It's the first sense that applies here. It gives no etymology.
     

    Dubyah

    Member
    English, US; inglés, EEUU
    MCL,

    This post is over two month old, so this info might be a little too late but...

    "Derry" is a word and it does have meaning, just not in English. The word "derry" is the anglicization of the Old Irish Gaelic word Daire (in Modern Irish Gaelic Doire) which means oak grove and/or an area densely wooded with oak trees. Its a topographical term just like Dell which is a small wooded valley.
     

    GreenWhiteBlue

    Senior Member
    USA - English
    "Derry" is a word and it does have meaning, just not in English. The word "derry" is the anglicization of the Old Irish Gaelic word Daire (in Modern Irish Gaelic Doire) which means oak grove and/or an area densely wooded with oak trees. Its a topographical term just like Dell which is a small wooded valley.
    You have given the origin of the name of the city and county of Derry in Ulster. It is likely that there are other languages that also have words that are pronounced the same way as well. Nevertheless, this interesting coincidence has nothing whatsoever to do with the word that appears in the children's song. That word, like the "hey-nonny-nonny" that Shakespeare used in the same way, is nothing other than what the OED describes it to be, as mplsray was kind enough to transcribe above: "A meaningless word in the refrains of popular songs."
     
    Last edited:

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Reinforcing what GWB has said (and reiterating I said earlier), for those of us living close to Derry, there is no connection between this rhyme and the city of Derry.
    I have just checked with MrsP who was born and raised in Derry and has recited this rhyme on countless occasions.
    She has always sung it as "... my dearie-O" and laughs at the suggestion it might be a reference to Derry.

    We could, of course, be mistaken.

    PS. Wikipedia says the rhyme probably originated in Germany.
     
    Last edited:

    Dubyah

    Member
    English, US; inglés, EEUU
    GreenWhiteBlue & panjandrum,

    I agree with panjandrum in saying that "we could, of course, be mistaken." and in fact yes the use of derry-o in the lyrics of the American version of Farmer in the dell could be nothing more than lilting or diddling non-lexical vocables.

    However, it seems like too much of a coincidence that two separate geographical toponyms that both describe wooded areas: 1. a dell (a small wooded valley), and 2. a derry (an oak grove and/or an area densely wooded with oak trees), would just happen to appear in the same rhyme but yet only one carries a lexical semantic meaning and the other is just filler.

    GreenWhiteBlue you say that I have
    given the origin of the name of the city and county of Derry in Ulster.
    I just want to explain that the anglicization of Irish daire/doire to derry was not just done in the case of Londonderry. There are hundreds of places and townlands throughout the whole of Ireland that are named Derry or whose name includes the word derry. These places and townlands are not named after Londonderry. They are so named because at one point in their history their original local Irish name included the geographical toponym daire/doire. Quick example, I know of six places named Derryfadda which originally were Doire Fada (which in Irish Gaelic means long oak grove).

    panjandrum, I complete agree with you that "there is no connection between this rhyme and the city of Derry." The thing is Londonderry though the biggest Derry is not the only Derry. When I suggest that derry-o might refer to a derry/daire/doire I'm not referring to the County or City of Londonderry. I am referring to geographical toponym that refers to an area wooded with oak trees.

    GreenWhiteBlue, Also while I do believe that the OED is an excellent resource, by far one of the most ample and well researched dictionary of the English language, the truth is, it's not perfect. They're a number of scholarly critics who suggest that the OED has long minimized or neglected to fully show the influence that Celtic languages have had on English. Just because the OED does not deign to trace the etymology of derry doesn't mean there isn't one.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    An additional perspective is that "dell" and "derry-o" seem to be predominantly US versions.
    UK versions are either "The farmer's in his den" or "The farmer wants a wife" - no dells.
    They have various nonsense syllables - see above - but generally these do not include derry.

    Wiki traces the roots of the rhyme to Germany.
    The rhyme is first recorded in Germany in 1826 and was more clearly a courtship game with a farmer choosing a wife, then in turn the selecting of a child, maid, and serving man, who leaves the maid after kissing.[1] This was probably taken to North America by German immigrants, where it next surfaced in New York in 1883 much in its modern form and using a melody similar to "A Hunting We Will Go".[1] From here it seems to have been adopted in through the United States, Canada (noted from 1893), the Netherlands (1894) and Great Britain; it is first found in Scotland in 1898 and England from 1909. In the early twentieth century it was evident as wide as France, Sweden, Australia, and South Africa.[1]
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Farmer_in_the_Dell
     

    MCL

    Senior Member
    English, U.S.
    Thank you all, for making this thread informative and interesting! My students have enjoyed your replies. Pan - thanks, as always.
     
    Last edited:
    < Previous | Next >
    Top