One For Sorrow ... Magpie Nursery Rhyme

Many people have grown up knowing One For Sorrow, Two For Joy, the popular magpie nursery rhyme where the number of birds seen at any one time will determine whether you have bad luck or good luck.


Probably the most well known version recited is as follows:

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.

However, there are a number of alternative versions and a longer rhyme which is local to Lancashire counts up to 13 magpies with an additional 6 lines:

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.

The earliest version of the rhyme was recorded in 1780 in a note in John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities.

John Brand was an English antiquarian and Church of England clergyman who was appointed Secretary to the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1784. The phrase “popular antiquities” later became known as folklore, a term coined by William John Thoms in 1846.

It was a much simpler version with just 4 lines:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a funeral,
And four for birth.

In 1846 the rhyme was added to Proverbs and Popular Saying of the Seasons by Michael Aislabie Denham, an English merchant and collector of folklore.

Five for heaven,
Six for hell,
Seven for the devil, his own self.

Yet, another longer version is to be found in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable:

One’s sorrow,
Two’s mirth,
Three’s a wedding,
Four’s a birth,
Five’s a christening,
Six a dearth,
Seven’s heaven,
Eight is hell,
And nine’s the devil his old self.

Another version was written for the popular children’s TV programme Magpie which ran from 1968 to 1980 and replaced many of the older regional variations of the rhyme. The theme tune was composed and played by the Spencer Davis Group under the alias The Murgatroyd Band, just after Steve Winwood had left to join the supergroup Blind Faith with Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech.

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,
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.

The song starts off similar to original rhymes but had an additional tenth bird that was not to be missed; in this case that was of course the next episode of the series.

Although all these songs and rhymes are most often associated with magpies, they can also be used to count other corvids such as jackdaws, ravens and crows, particularly in America where magpies are not as common.

Do you know any other variations of the magpie rhyme? Let us know in the comments below. 

7 Responses

  1. I have a large tree at the bottom of my garden in which the magpies nest. Its a wonderful sight when I see the chick’s fledging. I put food out for them and it’s lovely to watch them eating it all and squabbling between themselves. I love them.

  2. This is helpful! I have a couple of crows that I’ve befriended on my dog walks so there is always a couple of magpies zooming about. Today there was 9, the most I’ve seen to date and wondered if the song went past 7. Now I know

  3. I have a family of magpies that are always on the field out the front of my house. There’s about 12 of them so I was interested to see what the full rhyme was. Thanks for the info.

  4. Very interesting, I had a dream and in It I saw a fairly large group of magpies, in my head I counted 10 or 12…. I hope their wasn’t 13 😳. Does this mean anything anyone?? Thanks.

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