In the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme, each of a number of London church bells calls out a short phrase. Several different interpretations of the text are possible, including onomatopoeia, regional/historical character, practices of children’s games, and the sexuality of a wedding night. In the onomatopoetic interpretation, the phrase attributed to each bell represents the sound made by that bell.
A historical/regional interpretation takes the view that each bell’s words are characteristic of the area where the bell is found. For example, “oranges and lemons” may refer to a citrus market across the street from St. Clement’s church; the reference to debt of “five farthings” (“five shillings” in some variants) may go back to medieval poverty of the Shoreditch area. As a game, this rhyme, like London Bridge is Falling Down, involves trapping the last child to pass through an arch, making the players scramble to avoid being caught in during the last stanza. Finally, the last stanza can be interpreted as the events of a wedding night: the bride leads her new husband to bed with a candle and loses her virginity to him as he “chop[s] off” her “head” (her maidenhead). The rest of the rhyme then becomes a list of wedding gifts such as fruit, “pancakes and fritters”, etc.
Variations of the lyrics
Minor variants also appear within the core text, or in the modification/repetition of the last line.
The most interesting of the above is the inclusion or exclusion of the last stanza. The game versions always include some version, since it forms the end of each round of the game. “ At the last line of the rhyme, the ‘choppers’ bring their arms up and down in a chopping motion over each child that goes through…The child caught in the middle at the last word of the rhyme is out.”
Oranges and Lemons Lyrics
Say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings,
Say the bells of St. Martin’s.
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey.
When I grow rich,
Say the bells of Shoreditch.
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney.
I do not know,
Says the great bell of Bow.
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head!