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Of Kings and Eggs and Presidents

On August 22, 2018, after one of President Donald Trump's associates was convicted of fraud and another pleaded guilty to bank fraud, tax evasion, and campaign finance violations, the New York Daily News published a front-page headline with unusual historical and literary resonance.

"All the President's Henchmen"

To students of presidential history – and to people who remember the Richard Nixon era – the headline evoked All the President's Men, the best-selling chronicle, by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, of the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation from the presidency. People familiar with historical fiction recognized the title of a 1946 best-seller, Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize–winning All the King's Men, lurking in the background. And even grade-school children could probably recite the nursery rhyme that is the source of all three titles: "Humpty Dumpty."

It doesn't take much digging to find other recent variations on the "All the President's X" formula, many inspired by perceived parallels between the 45th president and the 37th, and all excellent illustrations of the phrasal template known as a snowclone. (The term was proposed in 2004 by a reader of the linguistics blog Language Log in response to an appeal for a word to describe clichés like "Eskimos have N words for snow." The Snowclone Database, now dormant, collected dozens of examples, including "X is the new Y," "This is your brain on X," and even "Xgate.") A podcast called "All the President's Lawyers" – "a weekly exploration of Donald Trump's sprawling legal issues" – launched in May 2018 on the Southern California public radio station KCRW. (It's hard to be original: The New York Times Magazine published a story headlined "All the President's Lawyers" in July 2017.) The cable news channel MSNBC airs a regular feature titled "All the President's Mess." In August, Salon.com published a story headlined "All the President's Friends." On Labor Day, the syndicated column of the political satirist Will Durst bore the title "All the President's Con Men." And the headline on a September 5 editorial in the New York Daily News extended "men" into a synonym for "lying": "All the President's Mendacity."

Variations on the theme had appeared for years before Trump moved into the White House. All the President's Spin: George W. Bush, the Media, and the Truth was published in 2004; Team Obama: All the President's Real Men and Women came out in 2012. Occasionally another word has substituted for "president": All the Shah's Men, All the Queen's Men, "All the Prime Minister's Men." There's even All the Queen's Horses, a 2017 documentary about the largest case of municipal fraud in U.S. history.

Wordplay and political finger-pointing aside, what's the story behind this remarkably sticky and versatile phrase?

The nursery rhyme that contains "all the king's men" is most familiar in this form:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

It comes to us from Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll's 1871 sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. But Carroll didn't invent the verse; it had been recorded in one form or another – sometimes the "king's men" were simply "men"; sometimes they were "doctors" – since the late 18th century, and had most likely existed in the oral tradition for many years before that. In The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, the renowned British folklorists Iona and Peter Opie quote one of their sources as saying the rhyme may be "one of those pieces the antiquity of which 'is to be measured in thousands of years, or rather it is so great that it cannot be measured at all.'" There are similar rhymes in many European traditions, the Opies write, "and it seems undeniable that they are connected with the English rhyme."

What Lewis Carroll and his great illustrator, John Tenniel, contributed to the story is the image of Humpty Dumpty as an easily cracked egg – or, more precisely (in Alice's words), a creature "exactly like an egg." (Humpty counters: "My name means the shape I am.")

John Tenniel illustration of Humpty Dumpty and Alice.

The "Humpty Dumpty" name pre-dates the character in the rhyme. In the late 17th century, according to the OED, humpty dumpty was a drink made of ale boiled with brandy. A century later, humpty dumpty was a jocular term for "a short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person." Because of the latter association, there has been speculation – never substantiated – that the Humpty Dumpty in the rhyme was King Richard III, who was depicted as a hunchback in Shakespeare's play and other sources. Another faux etymology was proposed by David Daube, a British professor who wrote in a 1956 issue of The Oxford Magazine that Humpty Dumpty was a siege engine that "sat on a wall" and was used unsuccessfully in 1643, during the English Civil War. But the Opies dismissed Daube's theory as "a spoof" and "ingenuity for ingenuity's sake."

Humpty Dumpty figure at Children's Fairyland in Oakland, California.

In fact, writes the British historian Jonathan Ferguson in his blog The BS Historian,

the rhyme doesn't even have such a specific historical basis. In all likelihood, none of them do. All those cute little origin stories for nursery rhymes? Like "Ring-a-ring-a-roses" being about the Black Death? BS. Made up. They're attempts to understand, satirise, play with words, or even just plain pull the wool over the eyes of the reader. But they aren't history. And like backronyms and urban myths, these damn things have a tendency, once staked by the debunker, to rise from the proverbial grave.

It isn't necessary to read history into the Humpty Dumpty story; you can see it instead as a variation on the Biblical proverb "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall." "It's about the breaking of things that — as the nursery rhyme goes — can't be put back together again," wrote New York Times book critic Dwight Garner in a 2016 appreciation of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.

Whatever you read into it, the "All the king's ___" snowclone is now solidly embedded in the popular consciousness and in headline-writers' bag of tricks. It's a convenient, if shopworn, shortcut for communicating the combination of arrogance and fragility that has doomed many men (and women) in positions of power. And with "a wall" carrying extra significance in the current era, we probably haven't seen the last of Humpty Dumpty's legacy.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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