Sticks, stones, and words

By William H. Baker

Contributing writer

When did you first hear the children’s rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?”

If you have children and grandchildren today, have you cited the words to them when they told you about being bullied at school or on the school bus? Or have you repeated the words to them if you heard one of them calling a friend an insulting name?

The idea is that the victim of name-calling should ignore the taunt and refrain from physical retaliation. In earlier times, it was intended that the victim remain calm and good-living.

It sounds a little antiquated in today’s world, and with all the name-calling and berating of others that seems daily fare on television, youth of today likely have replaced the rhyme with more streetwise comebacks.

Maybe it’s time for all of us to take a deep breath and remember the rhyme that helped in another day to bring calmness to a heated argument or a clash of personalities.

Among the variations of the wording, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me” is frequently seen in writings of more than a hundred years ago.

Records show that the phrase appeared in “The Christian Recorder” of March 1862 as “…an old adage.” A version was featured in The Who’s 1981 song “The Quiet One.”

Ten years later, country singer Tracy Lawrence recorded “Sticks and Stones” as a lament for a broken marriage. One verse of Lawrence’s song ends with “Those sticks and stones may break me, but the words you said just tore my heart in two.”

You will find references to the children’s rhyme in other songs and in books and movies. One of the books by Jo Jakeman may have followed the country song in its theme. A reviewer asked “How far would you go for revenge on your ex?”

That may not be a book you recommend to your children or grandchildren if they’ve been victims of bullying. But there are others.

One, written by Beth Perry, is simply titled “Stick and Stone.” It’s designed to keep young readers’ interest. The book received the 2018 Tennessee Volunteer State Book Award, Primary Division, and should be appealing particularly for preschoolers looking for a model of friendship.

You might want to check the rating on the movie “Sticks and Stones” to determine if it might be appropriate for older teens and others. It’s about a bully who faces the other side of a gun after the three kids he bullied take matters into their own hands.

The message in the simple rhyme is simply this: You might be able to hurt me by physical force but not by insults. A message that is still appropriate after hundreds of years in use.

William H. Baker is a Claiborne County native and former resident of Middlesboro. Email wbaker@limestone.edu