One for Sorrow (nursery rhyme)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"One for Sorrow"
Three magpies in a tree
Nursery rhyme
Publishedc. 1780

"One for Sorrow" is a traditional children's nursery rhyme about magpies. According to an old superstition, the number of magpies seen tells if one will have bad or good luck.


There is considerable variation in the lyrics used. A common modern version is:

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.[1]

A longer version of the rhyme recorded in Lancashire continues:

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.
Fourteen for love
Fifteen for a dove
Sixteen for the chime of a bell
Seventeen for the angels protection
Eighteen to be safe from hell
Nineteen to be safe from a crime
Twenty to end this rhyme [2]


One magpie at the birth of Jesus, perhaps presaging sorrow for Mary:[3] Piero della Francesca's The Nativity
Children's game hopscotch played in Lancashire, England with lyric close to the 1846 version of the rhyme

The rhyme has its origins in ornithomancy superstitions connected with magpies, considered a bird of ill omen in some cultures, and in Britain, at least as far back as the early sixteenth century.[4] The rhyme was first recorded in Samuel Johnson and George Steevens's 1780 supplement to their 1778 edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare with the lyric:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
Four for death.[5]

One of the earliest versions to extend this was published, with variations, in Michael Aislabie Denham's Proverbs and Popular Sayings (London, 1846):

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 [hell],
And ten for the d[evi]l's own sell [sic]![6]

In the 19th century book, A Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar, a proverb concerning magpies is recited: "A single magpie in spring, foul weather will bring". The book further explains that this superstition arises from the habits of pairs of magpies to forage together only when the weather is fine.

An English tradition holds that a single magpie be greeted with a salutation in order to ward off the bad luck it may bring. A greeting might be something like "Good morning, Mr Magpie, how are Mrs Magpie and all the other little magpies?",[7] and a 19th century version recorded in Shropshire is to say "Devil, Devil, I defy thee! Magpie, magpie, I go by thee!" and to spit on the ground three times.[8]

On occasion, jackdaws, crows and other Corvidae are associated with the rhyme, particularly in America where magpies are less common.[9] In eastern India, the erstwhile British colonial bastion, the common myna is the bird of association.[10]

A version of the rhyme became familiar to many UK children when it became the theme tune of the children's TV show Magpie, which ran from 1968 to 1980.[11] The popularity of this version, performed by The Spencer Davis Group, is thought to have displaced the many regional versions that had previously existed.[12]

Popular culture[edit]

The name of the rock band Counting Crows derives from the rhyme,[13] which is featured in the song "A Murder of One" on the band's debut album, August and Everything After.

The first track on Seanan McGuire's album Wicked Girls, also titled "Counting Crows", features a modified version of the rhyme.[14]

The artist S. J. Tucker's song, "Ravens in the Library," from her album Mischief, utilizes the modern version of the rhyme as a chorus, and the rest of the verses relate to the rhyme in various ways.[15]

David Dodds used the rhyme as the chorus for his song "Magpie"; it also included the lyric "Devil, Devil, I defy thee", having been inspired by an older woman he gave a lift to once in his new car. As a supposed counter-curse to the bad luck brought by witnessing a magpie, the woman would say the expression and spit on the floor. The English band The Unthanks recorded a version of this song on their 2015 album Mount the Air,[16] and the song appeared in the BBC series Detectorists, and the 4th season of the HBO series True Detective. The American alternative rock band The Innocence Mission featured a song called "One for Sorrow, Two for Joy" on their 2003 album Befriended. "One For Sorrow" on Megan Washington's album There There also features the rhyme.

Anthony Horowitz used the rhyme as the organizing scheme for the story-within-a-story in his 2016 novel Magpie Murders and in the subsequent television adaptation of the same name.[17]

The nursery rhyme's name was used for a book written by Mary Downing Hahn, One for Sorrow: A Ghost Story. The book additionally contains references to the nursery rhyme.

Sir Humphry Davy attributed the connection to joy and sorrow in his Salmonia: or Days of Fly Fishing (1828), in which he wrote that 'For anglers in spring it has always been regarded as unlucky to see single magpies, but two may be always regarded as a favourable omen; [...] in cold and stormy weather one magpie alone leaves the nest in search of food; the other remaining sitting on the eggs [...] when two go out [...] the weather is warm [...] favourable for fishing'.


  1. ^ P. Tate (2010). Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-1409035695.
  2. ^ "One For Sorrow". Bird Spot. 11 November 2020. Retrieved 23 November 2022.
  3. ^ Finaldi, Gabriele (1 December 1992). "Picture Choice: Gabriele Finaldi on pictorial wisdom in Piero's relaxed Nativity". The Independent. Archived from the original on 24 May 2022. Retrieved 2 February 2013.
  4. ^ I. Opie and M. Tatem, eds, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 235-6.
  5. ^ Johnson, Samuel; Steevens, George (1780). Supplement to the Edition of Shakespeare's Plays Published in 1778 Vol. II. London. p. 706. Retrieved 7 June 2023.
  6. ^ Denham, Michael Aislabie (1846). A collection of proverbs and popular sayings relating to the seasons, the weather, and agricultural pursuits / gathered chiefly from oral tradition. London: Printed for the Percy Society by T. Richards, 1846. p. 35. Retrieved 7 June 2023.
  7. ^ "How to salute a magpie - Country Life". Country Life. 19 March 2015. Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  8. ^ Jackson, Georgina Frederica (1885). Shropshire folk-lore, ed. by C.S. Burne, from the collections of G.F. Jackson. p. 223.
  9. ^ J. M. Marzluff, A. Angell, P. R. Ehrlich, In the Company of Crows and Ravens (Yale University Press, 2007), p. 127.
  10. ^ "With Death on its wings".
  11. ^ Wilkinson, Dean (18 July 2011). The Classic Children's Television Quiz Book. Andrews UK Limited. ISBN 978-1-908548-89-4. Retrieved 15 February 2021.
  12. ^ Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson, The Folklore of Discworld (London: Random House, 2010), ISBN 1407034243, p. 449.
  13. ^ "The Biggest New Band in America". Rolling Stone. 30 June 1994. Archived from the original on 15 November 2006. Retrieved 1 May 2022.
  14. ^ "Seanan McGuire: Songbook". Retrieved 1 May 2022.
  15. ^ Ravens in the Library, retrieved 5 June 2022
  16. ^ "The Magpie [David Dodds]".
  17. ^ Molly Moss (7 February 2022). "Magpie Murders' Daniel Mays and Lesley Manville face off in teaser". Radio Times. Retrieved 3 August 2023.

Further reading[edit]

  • Binney, Ruth (2004). Wise Words and Country Ways: Traditional Advice and Whether It Works Today. David & Charles. p. 223. ISBN 0-7153-1846-2.