22 sep
2017

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“Mary Had a Little Lamb” was published in 1830 by magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale1, based on a situation supposedly experienced by a girl named Mary Sawyer, later Mrs. Mary Tyler. The original had twenty-four lines, though it was quite repetitive and nowadays you normally see the eight-line abridgement shown below.

It was used as a test for the world’s first successful sound recording when Thomas Edison impressed it onto a tinfoil-wrapped cylinder with a sewing needle in late 18772. The poem’s brevity, universal familiarity, and richness of description have made it a favorite target for countless satirists3, advertisers, and — of course — lipogrammarians.

Mary had a little lamb
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

It followed her to school one day
Which was against the rule.
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.

1. Leaving out the letter O:

Mary had a little lamb
The bleached and chalky kind.
And everywhere she went, the lamb
Was rarely left behind.

In lecture hall with her he went
The rules they withheld heed.
It sparked the children’s merriment —
A student lamb, indeed.

2. Eliminating W:

Mary had a little lamb
A pearly, milky sort.
And every place that Mary reigned
The lamb did too hold court.

He spanieled her to school one day
Against all rule and custom.
It made the children laugh and play
To see that lamb amongst ‘em.

3. Leaving out A and T:

Muriel owned one mini-sheep
Whose fur resembled gypsum.
Wherever she hiked, her sheep likewise
Did shuffle, hop, or skip some.

He followed her in school, of course
Proscribed by codes of rule.
Her friends convulsed in gleeful chorus
While eyeing her sheep in school.

4. Finally, using only the left hand letters on the keypad. Among other grave challenges this allowed only A and E for vowels:

Greta reared a weest ewe
A faded, carefree tatter.
As Greta darted, veered, traversed
Sweet Tweeder zested after.

Greta, dearest ewe de-fettered,
At Vassar C. was fêted.
Staffers fracassed, effervesced.
Egad, a decree evaded.

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Next: Jack & Jill; Friends, Romans, Countrymen
© Peter Blinn

1. Yes, the very same Sarah Josepha Hale who essentially invented, and campaigned tirelessly for, the Thanksgiving holiday.

2. Edison and his crew did a lot of improvising, though. One version they recorded ran along the lines of “Mary has a silken gown, It is too tight by half/Who cares a damn for Mary’s lamb when they can see her calf?“ (I venture that people had a far lower excitement threshold back then.)

3. In Happy Kitty Bunny Pony/A Saccharine Mouthful of Super Cute, MST3K's Mike Nelson informs us “Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. I repeat, Mary had a little lamb. To add further interest to this tale, its fleece was white as snow, due to Mary's obsession with bathing the poor thing. Mary also enjoyed dressing up her lambs with ribbons, bells, and well, ribbons. The bells served to alert Mary when the animals were nearby, as lambs will attack and bite a startled human. To help discipline her lambs, Mary kept a jar of mint jelly on hand to let them know that it works both ways...” (© 2005 Harry N. Abrams, Inc.)

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