“Nobody axed you, Sir,” she said

Where are you going, my pretty maid?
I’m going a milking, sir, she said.
May I go with you, my pretty maid?
You’re kindly welcome, sir, she said.
What is your father, my pretty maid?
My father’s a farmer, sir, she said.
What is your fortune, my pretty maid?
My face is my fortune, sir, she said.
Then I won’t marry you, my pretty maid.
Nobody asked you, sir, she said.

The lines above come from an old nursery rhyme which was well known in the nineteenth century.  The photo above them is the right half of an anonymous stereograph (stereoview), which came to me from Connecticut but which probably originated in the United Kingdom.  Adhered to the left side of the mount is a label with a single line: NOBODY AXED YOU, SIR, SHE SAID.

'Nobody axed you, Sir,' she said 2

The images were colored by hand.  Hand-tinting was generally done by young women, often working in the back room of a studio.  Dating an anonymous stereoview with certainty is a challenge, but this one may date to the 1860s.  A blog post about stereographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum shows a hand-tinted stereograph from 1859 on a similar type of mount (see a page about it here).

The song itself may date back as far as the seventeenth century.  I found a number of different versions online, and many more probably existed.  However, none of the versions I found contained the word axed in place of asked.  That made me wonder why the publisher of the stereograph chose that spelling.  Was axed a common pronunciation at the time, or was it used here to emphasize the rural background of the milkmaid?  Whatever the answer, her smile and her jaunty pose tell us she isn’t the least bit intimidated by the dandy peering over the fence.

If you’d like to look at the image more closely, you can see a larger scan of it here.  Before you go, have a listen to the song below, from the album A Storybook of Children’s Songs.  It’s charming!  The video includes illustrations by Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886).



43 thoughts on ““Nobody axed you, Sir,” she said

Add yours

  1. Not a bad caption for this photo, but it does lend itself to some kind of caption. Axed sounds like a Southern spelling and pronunciation. The photo is delightful – reminded me of a scene from a silent movie with the villain twirling his moustache.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The way he’s peering at her from the bushes gives him a stalkerish air. But we shouldn’t be too hard on him. She doesn’t seem to mind being noticed. After all, she has to spend the rest of her day with cows.


  2. The song was familiar in my childhood; I can remember my mother singing it to me.

    As for ‘axed,’ I most often hear that in conversations among Blacks. It certainly is common, and it surprised me to know that it dates so far back; I thought it was part of the modern urban vernacular. It’s an interesting double meaning in this context. My first thought was of Lizzie Borden. She was accused in 1892, so I wonder if someone added that label to the image after her trial, as a kind of sardonic commentary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wondered if any of my readers would be familiar with the song. So far you’re the only one who has said so.

      I always assumed “axed” was an Americanism, but maybe it isn’t? Maybe it was associated with rural or working class people in the UK? Another possibility is that the stereograph is American, but I think that’s unlikely.

      As far as the man not getting axed in the Lizzie Borden sense, it’s certainly true that things could have gone worse for him!


  3. I am certain I have encountered it in English literature as a marker for rural/lower/working class people (perhaps only in certain regional dialects), although I haven’t got an example handy. I would not associate it automatically with America.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s very interesting, thank you! This discussion about “axed” reminds me of a story I heard many years ago about some folk songs brought to Appalachia from the British Isles 200+ years ago. Here the songs have been passed down within families, while in the UK they’ve been forgotten. It makes me wonder if “axed” was common in the UK in the 1700s or early 1800s but has since disappeared.


  4. Interesting photo and detail. I happened to be reading a biography of a family who left Western Ireland for Australia in the 1850s and the author wrote about the peculiar spelling and grammar of her grandfather, for example, ‘long and wairisome’, ‘fiew pounds’, ‘dew’ to leave, and ‘your’ as ‘yere’ etc. She observed that his choice of spelling was arbitrary and he would even try out different versions of a words in the same letter.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s so interesting! Spelling seems to have been much more fluid in earlier times. Even names sometimes varied on documents during a person’s lifetime. The spelling of my last name evolved from the 1600s to the 1800s. In England it was Puddington. After my ancestors emigrated to Maine in the 1600s, it began to change: Purrington->Purington->Purinton. Purrington sounds like a town inhabited by cats. 😄

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My guess is it was dictated to the printer who heard ‘axe’ instead of ‘ask’, much like a lot of journalists these days dictate their copy and have it wrongly spelled. And it might have its origins in Northern British English, many forms of which sound very different from Southern British English. For instance, in the North, the ‘a’ in ‘ask’ would be pronounced like the a in ‘and’. Whereas in the South the a would sound like the a in yard (without the R sound, obviously).

    On the other hand, I came across this, the historical part of which might be of interest: https://theconversation.com/ask-or-aks-how-linguistic-prejudice-perpetuates-inequality-175839

    The photo is reminiscent of the tinted postcard series’ (many different ones, and different series) of quasi-romantic, somewhat risque imagery, from circa 1900/1910.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Ruth! For some reason I haven’t been getting notifications from your blog. I thought you hadn’t posted in months. A quick visit showed me otherwise. I’ll try to stay on top of it from now on!


  6. Brad,
    Well, this post of yours certainly got lots of attention!

    I enjoyed following the links leading to a thorough history of stereographs and it does seem likely the milkmaid is English in origin.
    As the father of two African American children and a host for “Fresh Air” children from the Bronx, I have often heard the “axed” pronunciation in rap and hip-hop music as well as in conversation. I like the explanation from Val’s comment and link: It is an alternate pronunciation not a mispronunciation-although it does not always fall easily on this New Englander’s ears.
    To further support this opinion, I offer this from a black linguist who writes in the LA Times: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/la-xpm-2014-jan-19-la-oe-mcwhorter-black-speech-ax-20140119-story.html
    He often gets the question in Q&A sessions after his public talks: “One answer a linguist can give is to cite history, pointing out how, in Old English, the word for “ask” swung randomly between ascian and acsian, and nobody batted an eye. But that answer never satisfies the audience. That was then, this is now, they suggest, and today, “ax” sounds ignorant. So why can’t black people switch a couple of sounds around and stop saying it?”
    My response: “…because it is a learned cultural DIFFERENT pronunciation and perfectly legit”. QED Stewart

    PS: on your reply to Ruth’s comment, I am quite sure I have been dropped as a follower from several blogs. A failure of AI? Or some built in algorithm which requires regular “likes” or “comments” to keep me on a list?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I am reading E.M. Forster’s “Howards End” at the moment, and there is a conversation in it between Margaret Schlegel and her younger brother, in which she says something like she might have married if she’d had the opportunity, and he says “Has nobody arst you?” I don’t know if it is a reference to your milkmaid, but I think it’s very possible. The book was published in 1910, and the characters could well have known the song. Incidentally, her answer to whether nobody asked her was “only ninnies”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How interesting! I’ve never run across the spelling “arst” before. After reading your comment, I got the idea to google “Nobody axed you, Sir,” to see where else it might have appeared. One result was an American painting from the 1860s, which is roughly the time period of the stereoview. Another result was a postcard published in 1903 in the UK (printed in Berlin). So the spelling of “axed” might well have been familiar to E.M. Forster. That doesn’t explain “arst,” though.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: