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"Rub-A-Dub-Dub" is an English language nursery rhyme first published at the end of the 18th century in volume two of Hook's Christmas Box under the title "Dub a dub dub" rather than "Rub a dub dub". It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 3101.
This rhyme exists in many variations. Among those current today is:
Three men in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker,
And all of them out to sea.
Origins and meaning
The earliest versions of this rhyme published differ significantly in their wording. Dating back to the 14th century, the original rhyme makes reference to maids in a "tub" – a fairground attraction similar to a modern peep show. The rhyme is of a type calling out otherwise respectable people for disrespectable actions, in this case, ogling naked ladies – the maids. The nonsense "Rub-a-dub-dub" develops a phonetic association of social disapprobation, analogous to "tsk-tsk," albeit of a more lascivious variety. The nursery rhyme is a form of teaching such associations in folklore: for individuals raised with such social codes, the phrase "Rub-a-dub-dub" alone could stand in for gossip or innuendo without communicating all of the details.
One early recorded version in Christmas Box, published in London in 1798, has wording similar to that in Mother Goose's Quarto or Melodies Complete, published in Boston, Massachusetts around 1825. The latter ran:
In the original version as it appeared both in England and in the USA (Boston) the song was talking about three maids instead of three men. Later research, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951), suggests that the lyrics are illustrating a scene of three respectable townsfolk "watching a dubious sideshow at a local fair".
By around 1830 the reference to maids was being removed from the versions printed in nursery books. In 1842 James Orchard Halliwell collected the following version:
Rub a dub dub,
Three fools in a tub,
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker,
The candlestick maker.
Turn them out, knaves all three.
In popular culture
There are several variants of the following joke:
A pilot returning from a mission could not locate his aircraft carrier and in addition failed to establish secure communication. So he circled around the formation and radioed: "Rub a dub dub, where is my tub?" And received: "Hey Diddle Diddle! Right here in the middle!"
Some memoirs claim it was a real incident.
- Schubertiade Music: volume two of Hook's Christmas Box
- Chris Roberts, Librarian at Lambeth College, London; interviewed on NPR in 2005
- Roberts, Chris (2003). Heavy Words Lightly Thrown. Gotham. ISBN 1592402178.
- I. Opie and P. Opie, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 2nd edn., 1997), p. 447.
- The Escort Carriers In Action: The Story, In Pictures, Of The Escort Carrier Force, US Pacific Fleet, 1945 (Atlanta, Ruralist Press, 1946) p.95. (public domain archive)