A Dillar a Dollar

On the bulletin board, in the third grade classroom of my favorite teacher of all time, Mrs. Dorothy Marlin, were a collection of nursery rhymes; my favorite being the one about the infamous, “Ten O’clock Scholar”. The rhyme read as follows:

A diller, a dollar,
A ten o’clock scholar,
What makes you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o’clock,
And now you come at noon.

Many were the afternoons, full and drowsy from lunch, that I sat at my desk, elbow resting on the desk top and my head resting on my hand. I sat there staring at the bulletin board, but more specifically, focused on that “scholarly” rhyme.

At first glance, it seemed almost entirely nonsensical. It raised more questions than it answered, for instance, the rhyme mentioned a “diller”.

What the heck was a “diller”? And what did that dollar have to do with “the price of tea in China”?

Also, if I were to assume that school started at 8 or 9 O’clock in the morning, how is 10 O’clock to be considered, “soon”? Wouldn’t the tardy scholar have been late at 10 O’clock, as well as noon? At least, that was how my third grade mind viewed the situation. Since that time, however, I’ve had an opportunity to do some of my infamous “research”!

According to Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford, OUP, 1951), ‘a diller, a dollar’ are taken from the words dilatory and dullard. Dictionary.com says that the word, “dilatory” means: “tending to delay or procrastinate; slow; tardy”. Aha! Already, we know from the nursery rhyme itself, that the “scholar” was always arriving late to school; now we have confirmation from other, reliable sources, that the “scholar” was indeed prone to tardiness.

Dictionary.com also says that a dullard is: “a stupid, insensitive person”; another, “Aha!” moment. Not only was this “scholar” prone to tardiness, but it seems that the “scholar” wasn’t even a scholar, but a “stupid person” masquerading as a scholar.

In the New Geordie Dictionary (the dialect spoken by Geordies – natives of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England) by Graham, “a ‘diller’ is an ‘unwilling scholar,’ – a lazy student who isn’t too excited about having to do the work required of him.” In the aforementioned Mother Goose nursery rhyme (circa 1760) an unwilling and ‘unpunctual’ student is being chastised for his tardiness and this nursery rhyme had, in fact, become a children’s chant used to chide a student who was late for school.

One writer states that, “In modern usage, “ten o’clock scholar” has come to mean more than just a student who is late for class. It appears to have absorbed the reluctant/lazy scholar meaning of “diller” so that it now also encompasses the ideas of a student who is not serious about their studies and who looks for shortcuts and easy ways out such as reading the Cliff Notes rather than the book.” The writer goes on to define the, ‘Ten O’clock scholar’ as; “one who might not only be late (behind schedule) in finishing his assignment, but who is willing to take ‘unscholarly’ (lazy) shortcuts to finish his work and get a good grade – the UNSCHOLARLY SCHOLAR!”

It is imperative at this time, the beginning of this school year, that students both young and old, take a lesson from the old nursery rhyme about the dullard who masqueraded as a scholar. The only sure way to achieve success in your studies is through diligence and punctuality. As a matter of fact, this “nonsensical” Mother Goose rhyme holds a lesson for us all which is that; It’s okay to be “on time”. Being late is not “fashionable”, nor is it propitious. Being on time is not just for nerds and C.P. time is not funny, nor is it cool!

Don’t be like the young man whom, after spotting the gold chain of a pocket watch dangling from my old Uncle Croff’s pocket, as he sat on the porch, resting on his haunches like a bony old hound and hacked up globs of phlegm from whatever latent pulmonary ailment was harbored within his lungs, decided to ask him the time of day.

“What time is it Unk?”, asked the young man. Uncle Croff took the half pint gin bottle from his hip pocket and took a swig, smacked his lips and said to the young man, “What difference it make to you boy, you ain’t going nowhere no how!”

“I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.” ~Charles Dickens


  1. Hi Ron,
    This is an informative piece. Your account of the research you carried out is just as interesting as the explanation itself. (I never knew that about my north eastern neighbours!).
    As always there’s great blend of recollections and lessons.
    Thanks again

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks once again Roger. Previous to doing this piece, I’d never heard of the Geordies. Newcastle- upon-Tyne has a note of familiarity to it.

      It sometimes amazes me that not all British people speak the same. There are different dialects from different regions, not unlike the U.S.

      I have a British co-worker who gets a kick out of my British impersonation, because although I think it’s pretty good she, of course, can tell that I haven’t a clue! LOL

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Ron.
        Man, we have accents of accents here!
        You take the ‘titchy’ part Wales. Not only does North East Wales have a different accent from South East Wales, but the phraseology is different! I from SE. Wales but live in NE Wales, in one office I was the unofficial interpreter. being proficient in both forms of English.
        My younger daughter has lived around Leeds (check on a map) for 15 years, and sometimes I have to listen very carefully when she’s speaking quickly.
        And us Brits couldn’t do a reasonable approximation of any US accent! ‘Twas ever thus!’
        Btw, where does your British co-worker originate from?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Top o the morning to you mate! (that’s the kind of stuff us US’ers think is British). LOL
        Sarah is from Birmingham, UK. She told me once that her time here in the Southern U.S. has forever changed the way she speaks. I guess she’s a Southern Birmingham’er now. (not to be confused with Birmingham, Alabama U.S. LOL.

        She tried to explain the differences between the different areas of UK. We spent several long moments working on the pronunciation of “ear” and “year”. I said, in my phony British accent, “eyah”. She schooled me that there are not two syllables in the British pronunciation. LOL

        Charming lass!

        It’s amazing though that there are some British actors whom I never new were British, until I’d seen them outside of their movie roles.

        Can real Brits tell the difference between real British actors and American actors feigning British accents? Pray tell.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Wow!! Your co-worker is a Brummie! Wait til I tell why wife, who also hails from Birmingham! Small world.
        I’ve been surprised by that too! I think it must be down to the effort actors put in with voice coaches.
        We still chuckle over Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. But these days there have been some stunning performances.
        Renee Zellweger as ‘Beatrix Potter’ and of course ‘Bridget Jones’.
        James Cromwell as The Duke of Edinburgh in ‘The Queen’

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Yes, I can imagine the unintended humor that might arise from watching Dick’s, otherwise, brilliant performance. I haven’t seen ‘Beatrix Potter’, ‘Bridget Jones’ nor ‘The Queen’. Sounds like my movie viewing lineup for Netflix this weekend has been made for me.

    Thanks for the insight into the nuances of British dialects. Between you and Sarah, I might become a reasonable ‘bloke’ after all. LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent piece cousin:)
    I can see you there as a cute little cuss just puzzling and puzzling yourself over the meaning of that rhyme.
    Alas, Ron–being Ron–would figure that thing out; somehow, someday 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Year ago I read a scholarly account of the 10 o’clock/12 o’clock paradox, that is, why would the scholar be early coming at noon, when he used to come at 10 a.m. The medieval day started at sunrise, or 6 a.m. our time (actually it varied throughout the year by a half an hour or so to account for changes in natural light.) With the day beginning at 6, hour 10 is our 4 p.m. , so the scholar came at 4 p.m., but now he comes at “noon” or nones,, which is the 9th hour, that being our 3 p.m. (counted from 6 a.m.) So that makes sense in medieval counting–he used to come at 10 and now he comes at 9. It was certainly hyperbole, exaggerating his unscholarly behavior, that he came in the afternoon instead of the morning.


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