What does “pop goes the weasel” mean?

–Birdaire, via AOL

Who knows? It’s basically a folk song and nursery rhyme that later saw service as a music-hall ditty. It’s tough enough deciphering rock lyrics written in 1975; what do you expect with a tune going back to the 17th century? But Straight Dope curator of music Tom Miller said he’d give it his best shot.

Tom collected two dozen versions of “Pop Goes the Weasel” from both sides of the Atlantic. Many were similar, with one key difference: in North America, the opening line was generally “all around the mulberry bush,” possibly due to conflation with the similar tune “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.” In the UK, however, it was usually “all around the cobbler’s bench.” This gives us a better idea of the song’s original meaning. Most authorities think “Pop Goes the Weasel” describes the acts of weaving, spinning, and sewing. A weasel, Tom reports, was a mechanism used by tailors, cobblers, and hatters that “popped” when the spool was full of thread.

Some argue that to pop the weasel is also cockney slang meaning to pawn one’s coat. This makes sense in light of the second verse of the kids’ version: “A penny for a spool of thread / A penny for a needle / That’s the way the money goes,” etc. A version popular in 19th-century English music halls makes things even clearer: “Up and down the City Road / In and out the Eagle / That’s the way the money goes,” etc. The Eagle in question was a London tavern; clearly the lyricist was describing the consequences of spending too little time at the cobbler’s bench and too much at the bar.

Among local Mensa members, I am acknowledged as a triviameister. In working with the local civic theater, I provide props of every description. I have, however, been stumped by a prop described only as “a cholera belt.” I have consulted all the usual sources–Gray’s Anatomy, Britannica, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, Comics Buyer’s Guide, and the collected Playboy philosophy by Hugh Hefner–all to no avail. I am assailed by curiosity to the point of near dementia. You are my last hope. What the &*@#! is a “cholera belt”? –Greg Jones, via the Internet

When I discussed this with my assistant, Little Ed, he thought the cholera belt was a geographic region, like the Rust Belt. I can’t believe I keep this guy on the payroll.

The cholera belt was an article of clothing commonly worn as a preventative measure by British soldiers serving in India, where cholera was endemic. Basically a waistband or cummerbund made of flannel or silk, the belt was supposed to keep away the cold and damp, the theory being that a chilled abdomen would lead to cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal ailments. Doctors realized fairly early on that cholera had little to do with cold and damp and was in fact caused by fecal bacteria in drinking water. But military inertia being what it was, use of the belt persisted until after World War II.

What is the meaning of the “CE” symbol found on many consumer products these days?

–Miles Reese, Eugene, Oregon

It’s officially called the “CE marking,” and it means that the product complies with the international technical and safety standards issued by the European Union, previously known as the European Community (hence CE). The standards govern things like toy safety, telecommunications terminals, electrical equipment, scales, etc, where you want to enforce a certain uniformity. The standards are narrowly drawn, and the CE marking can’t be considered a mark of overall quality, though that may change in time. The marking thing is part of a broad effort to lower trade barriers between EU nations, in effect creating a huge domestic market like the one that’s been such a boon for U.S. manufacturers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.