What a to-do to die today


Someone just encountered my 1997 Words & Stuff column on elocution and wrote me to ask about elocution. Which led me to look at the column again, which led me to the following warmup exercise:

What a to-do to die today, at a minute or two to two;

a thing distinctly hard to say, but harder still to do.

We'll beat a tattoo, at twenty to two

a rat-tat-tat- tat-tat-tat- tat-tat-tattoo

and the dragon will come when he hears the drum

at a minute or two to two today, at a minute or two to two.

And I'm still curious about where that comes from, so I Googled it. Sadly, all the online information I can find about it indicates that it's simply a vocal warmup exercise, not a quote from something.

Which seems unlikely to me. The dragon line isn't particularly hard to say and doesn't contain any particularly unusual speech sounds; if this really were simply a warmup exercise, I doubt that line would be there. There's also more backstory/plot than in most warmup exercises.

So I remain steadfast in my belief that it's a quote from something. But what? Anyone have any ideas?

As noted in the addenda page for the column, it's not from The Court Jester.

The search for info on that did lead me to another tongue-twister/warmup I hadn't encountered before:

Give me the gift of a grip-top sock,

A clip drape shipshape tip-top sock--

Not your spinslick slapstick slipshod stock,

But a plastic, elastic grip-top sock.

None of your fantastic slack swap slop

From a slapdash flash cash haberdash shop;

Not a knickknack knitlock knock-kneed knickerbocker sock

With a mock-shot blob-mottled trick-ticker top clock;

Not a rucked up, puckered up, flop top sock,

Nor a super-sheer seersucker rucksack sock;

Not a spot-speckled frog-freckled cheap sheik's sock

Off a hodgepodge moss-blotched scotch-botched block;

Nothing slipshod, drip drop, flip flop, or glip glop;

Tip me to a tip-top grip-top sock.

I cobbled that version together from various web sources. I wonder if that, too, might be a quote from something; anyone know?


I've seen "What a to-do" attributed to Lewis Carroll. I don't know if that's correct. But I post because I was amused to find "Drum washer drum crushers" in an ad at the bottom of the Google Books search results for ["dragon will come when he hears the drum"]. I thought for sure it was another tongue twister. It turned out to be an ad for a drum washing and crushing service, but it's nevertheless challenging to say! I can't get to ten repetitions without my mouth turning to mush.

Yeah, I saw a page attributing it to Lewis Carroll, but I find that hard to believe -- it doesn't sound to me at all like the kind of thing he wrote. (And I suspect that all of Lewis Carroll's work is on the web, so a search for the verse seems like it ought to turn up the source if it's L.C.)

:) re "drum washer drum crushers" -- nice! I can't say it more than a couple times either.

I have to add a link to the Stephen Colbert/Stone Phillips gravitas-off video that features the "What a to-do" verse. (Requires Windows Media Player or flip4mac or other way of viewing Windows Media filles.)

Can't help you, but I like the verse.

Reminds me of:

All I want is a proper cup of coffee
Made in a proper copper coffee pot
I may be off my dot
But I want a cup of coffee from a proper copper pot

Iron coffee pots and tin coffee pots
they are no use to me
If I can't have a proper cup of coffee from a proper copper pot
than I'll have a cup of tea.

I'm in a highschool theatre class, and we use "what a to-do" to help with our pronounciation in words and speech. That's where I know it from. I'm not sure if it's from anything though. i will let you know if i find anything out.

"Beat a tattoo" etc. is from a song in Edward German's 2-act comic opera "Merrie England". As I recall it, it is in the second act, the last number before the finale.

I might have an answer for you.
Check out track #27 for this libretto: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merrie_England_(opera)

Then look at the caption for the bottom picture on this page:

Partial lyrics:
Oh what a to-do to die today
At a minute or two to two
A thing distinctly hard to say
But an easier thing to do.

For they'll beat a tattoo at two today
A rat-tat-tat tattoo for you
And the dragon will come when he hears the drum
There's nothing for you to do but stay
And the dragon will do for you.

From "Merrie England" Edward German & Basil Hood

Thank you very much to John Davies and LilyAyl, and I apologize to cara and John for not noticing that their comments were being held for moderation.

I'm really delighted to finally know where this comes from. In fact, yesterday I ordered a CD of Merrie England from Wal-Mart's website. I wouldn't normally order from Wal-Mart, but the CD costs roughly 1/4 as much from there as from Amazon, last time I checked. And I don't especially care about the quality of the recording or the performance; I just want to hear the song. You can hear an audio clip of it on that Wal-Mart page.

...Oddly, Wal-Mart now says it's out of stock. I wonder whether that means I got the last one, or whether it means they didn't have any to begin with but couldn't be bothered to tell me so before I ordered. Turns out that Amazon currently has a used copy for $7, which wasn't there a week or two ago, so I guess if Wal-Mart doesn't have it, I'll order a cheap used one from Amazon next time one turns up there.

I have a copy of "Song of the Sock" which differs slightly from the one you posted. It is attributed to Alun Llewellyn.

This is the version i learned

oh what a to-do to die today
at a min. or two till two

a thing distinctly hard to say or harder still to do

He'l beat a tatto at a quarter to two
with a ratt-a-tat-tat-a-tat-tat-a-to-too
and the dragon will come at the beat of the drum
at a min or two till two today
at a min or to till two

I bought the CD of Merrie England, and lilia's comment has finally reminded me to transcribe the relevant song.

It's track 10 on disc 2 (which makes it the second-to-last song in the show), and the "title" is given as "Oh! Here's a to-do to die to-day"--but that's the just the opening lyrics. (Giving the beginning of the lyrics as the title is pretty common in recordings of operettas.)

It's apparently part of a play-within-the-play presentation of the story of St. George and the Dragon.

It starts with the chorus singing:

Oh! Here's a to-do to die today
At a minute or two to two;
A thing distinctly hard to say
And harder still to do.
For they'll beat a tattoo at two to two,
A rat-a-tat-tat tattoo-oo-oo,
And the dragon will come when it hears the drum
At a minute or two to two today,
At a minute or two to two.

[Then a soloist sings:]

Why, hullaballoo, you die today
At a minute or two to two,
Which is rather hard to have to say
But an easy thing to do.
For they'll beat a tattoo at two to two,
And everything will be done for you;
And the dragon will come when it hears the drum;
There's nothing for you to do but stay,
And the dragon will do for you.

And then the chorus repeats, and that's the end of the piece. Total duration, just under a minute and a half.

I don't know for sure that the performance on the CD is an accurate rendition of the original lyrics, but this is as close as I've seen to a definitive source, and I listened to it several times as I transcribed it so I'm pretty sure I transcribed it right.

Furthermore, I believe this to currently be the only page on the entire web that contains an accurate transcription of the song. :)

Thanks again to John D and LilyAyl for pointing me in the right direction!

Sadly, the recording overall is pretty forgettable. I was hoping that it would be Gilbert & Sullivan-like, but I don't find the music nearly as catchy nor the lyrics nearly as entertaining or clever as the better G&S shows. Nothing really bad, but nothing that I remember five minutes after listening to it.

i have studdering problems so its hard to say for me lolz

the dragon line is harder to say CORRECTLY than you think

many people pronounce the letter combination "dr" [as in the beginning of "dragon" and "drum"] incorrectly: substituting a soft "g" sound for the correct "dr" sound.

when taught correctly in voice and speech classes, this exercise forces you to focus on making the correct sounds for each letter and letter combination

I learned a version of the verse during rehearsals for a production of The Mikado at George Washington University, in the US capitol city, during the summer of 1983. It was on a sheet of diction exercises handed out by the member of the theatre faculty directing.

As I recall (now 26 years later) that version was:

What a to-do to die today at a minute or two to two.
A thing disctinctly hard to say, but harder still to do.
For they'll beat a tatoo at twenty to two -
rat-a-tat rat-a-tat rat-a-tat too.
And the dragon will come and beat the drum
at a minute or two to two today,
at a minute or two to two.

I recall at the time wondering why a dragon would come just to beat a drum. It may be because someone thought "beat" would round out the variety of vowel sounds occurring in that line and thus enhance the elocution value. I always saw this as a diction exercise outside the category of tongue-twisters. I would say the challenge here is not to articulate the words without obvous distortion but to say them with great precision, particularly the consonants.

i had to memorize this in my british literature class... so think british lit.

At a minute or two to two today, at a minute or two to two.....goes on to talk about having tea with the red queen and the white queen and is indeed from Lewis Carroll.

It appears that some commenters haven't read the other comments. Nope, the verse is not from Lewis Carroll; see the earlier comments to learn where it's actually from.

We always used "To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark, dock" and ending with "from a cheap and chippy chopper with a big black block!" from the Mikado!

We used the "What a to do to die today...." and "Give me the gift of a grip top sock" at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, when I was a student there from 1982-1985 (I was also in the production company). Good to see them again.

So glad this page is here :) Learned this rhyme in my teaching theatre class and it's nice to pin down an origin.

So sad so many people fail to read comments before posting one of their own.

it's a short poem that was originally written by Lewis Carrol in victorian time periods in regards to war's of the brittish empire going on at te time. You can find many modifications people have made for speech warm-ups, but the original writting actually makes incredible sense when taken in context:
"what to do, to die today,
at a minute or so to two.
a thing distinctly hard to say,
but harder still to do.
for they'll beat a tattoo
at twenty to two
with a rat a tat tat, a tata tattoo,
and the dragon will come
when he hears the drum
at a minute or so to two today
at a minute or so to two."
the term tattoo refers to the spacific druming performed when someone dies in militarty contexts, and the dragon is most likely refering to the war this is written for, the opium war. Opium users were often said to "chase the dragon," opium being an asian substance, and asia is this time period was often sybolized by a dragon. the dragon in this poem has a double meaning though, it also sybolizes death.

Just found Priscilla's 2010 comment, which had fallen afoul of the spam filter, and rescued it.

It's remarkable to me how often people post comments without reading any of the comments that have come before theirs.

In the unlikely event that Priscilla ever comes back here and ever reads the comments: I'm sorry to say that your analysis, while interesting, is wrong. It wasn't written by Lewis Carroll; it was written for an operetta in 1902, and in that context it's about the dragon from the story of St. George and the Dragon.

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This page contains a single entry by Jed published on February 10, 2007 11:41 AM.

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