What a to-do to die today

Note added in 2020: We’ve found the source and context of the first piece listed here, the “What a to-do to die today” one. For details, see comments on this post. Please don’t post any further guesses about this piece; we now know where it came from, what the real words are, and what it means in context.

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.

Added in 2020: It turns out to be from a comic opera called Merrie England, written by Edward German in 1902. For more details, see comments on this post.

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?

46 Responses to “What a to-do to die today”

  1. jere7my

    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.

  2. Jed

    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.

  3. Jed

    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.)

  4. jacob

    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.

  5. cara

    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.

    • lexi

      i learned it from my elementry school drama assistant.
      havn’t ever known it from anywhere else.

  6. John Davies

    “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.

  7. LilyAyl

    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

    • Sue Beckett

      Thanks for the “Merry England” answer. Some years ago, with members of Rugby Operatic Society, we staged ME and a couple of years ago, I taught this patter song to my young grandson, who loved it. Some of the words you suggest vary from the version we sang.

    • Gregor

      It’s an ode to those about to die by military execution;
      Breaking it down:
      “What a to do to die today at a minute or two to two {the condemned has been sentenced to die at 2 o’clock}
      A thing distinctly difficult to say but harder still to do {it’s not easy to think of one’s own death, but here the condemned knows that they’ll be coming for him soon, but when? }
      For they’ll beat a tattoo at twenty to two {A tattoo is not only the word for inking the skin derived from the fact that it is indelibly beat into the skin, it is also the indelible call for the executioner “at twenty till two”}
      With a rat-a-ta ta-ta-ta ta-ta-tatoo.
      and the dragon will come {the dragon being the executioner} when he hears the drum
      at a minute or two till two today, at a minute or two till two.”

      • Jed

        Gregor: Nope, that’s incorrect.

        As noted elsewhere in these comments, it’s part of a play-within-the-play presentation of the story of St. George and the Dragon. So the dragon in question is a literal dragon, not a human executioner.

        You are correct that tattoo in this song doesn’t refer to ink, but your description of what tattoo means in this context is a little confusing. To quote my dictionary, a tattoo (in this sense) is “rapid rhythmic rapping”; in particular, in this context, it’s a drumbeat.

  8. Jed

    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.

  9. Anon.

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

  10. lilia

    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

  11. Jed

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

    (I lightly edited this comment in 2020.)

    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.

    (In 2020, I slightly edited the following lyrics, to match the lyrics given in the 1903 final edition of the complete score.)

    It starts with the chorus singing:

    Oh! here’s a to-do to die to-day
    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, Boo-hoo
    And the dragon will come
    When it hears the drum
    At a minute or two to two to-day,
    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 ev’rything 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!

    (The only significant changes I made to the above in 2020 were changing tattoo-oo-oo to tattoo, boo-hoo and changing Why, hullaballoo to Why hullaballoo? The other changes were essentially cosmetic.)

    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.

    (2020 update: I did make a couple of small mistakes, as noted above, but nothing major.)

    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.

    • nigel betts

      I believe it should be dragoon and has been miss read at an early rendition, it talks of a soldier being punished. Very normal affair in 18th British military

      • Jed

        That seems very unlikely to me. Do you have any evidence of that, such as an image of the original version?

        As Wikipedia notes, Merrie England includes this plot element: “Wilkins works at length on a stage version of the story of St. George and the Dragon.” So it makes perfect sense to refer to a dragon. Also, the word dragoon has emphasis on the second syllable, not the first, so it wouldn’t scan in this song. Also, a dragoon is a kind of soldier, or a kind of weapon; in either of those meanings, the phrase the dragoon will come when it hears the drum wouldn’t make sense.

        So I’m sorry to say that I don’t think your theory is right.

  12. sarah olawumi

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

  13. Anonymous

    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

  14. David Q.

    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.

  15. Anonymous

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

  16. Anonymous

    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.

  17. Jed

    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.

  18. Renee Kujawski Bauernfeind

    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!

  19. Tim McDonald

    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.

  20. linzyg8r

    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.

  21. Priscilla

    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.

    • Jed

      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.

  22. Emily

    I learned this in seventh grade drama, same time we learned the grip top sock, red leather yellow leather, and another rhyme I can’t remember. We really only use them as warm ups before performances though, along with “Miles and miles of golden sand” and energy. Their main purpose is likely to get the nerves off.

  23. Ashley Bishop

    and now, thanks to YouTube, you can all listen to it here!


  24. Claire

    Yes, I think this is from Alice in Wonderland. I’ve read the book, and I’m pretty sure this little poem is somewhere in it.

    • Jed

      I can’t tell whether Claire is trolling us or just hasn’t read any of the comments.

      On the off chance that it’s the latter: nope, this isn’t from Lewis Carroll. See earlier comments for information about what it’s really from.

      This comment finally prompted me to add the correct attribution in the post itself, as I should’ve done in 2007 when I first found out about it. I’m hoping that that will keep future commenters from posting incorrect guesses.

      Remarkable how many of the commenters thought it came from Lewis Carroll. To my ear, it doesn’t sound anything like Lewis Carroll, but I guess when an incorrect attribution gets attached to something, it’s hard to shake it loose. (As Shakespeare once said.)

  25. Anonymous

    That’s kind of rude to Claire, don’t you think?

    • Jed

      Nope. Several other commenters, dating back to 2007, have declared that this is by Lewis Carroll, and I have replied to all of them to say that it isn’t. So either Claire didn’t bother to read any of the previous comments, or she was intentionally posting a joke answer. Either way, after nearly fourteen years of telling commenters that this is not by Lewis Carroll, I have very little patience left for people who say that it is.

  26. Alexis Lloyd

    Ha ha! I’ve enjoyed trawling through the what a to do comments. I learned this as a warm up at Community Choir Theatre Royal Norwich. I’ve missed singing so much since Covid struck – what a to do indeed!

  27. Jane Newick

    I’ve enjoyed reading this! It is indeed from Edward German’s Merrie England. The dragon was supposed to come to eat its victim when it heard the drum, tattoo! I sang the operetta many years ago in Battle, Sussex. I’d love to see it again, sometime! There are some lovely songs in it which do not deserve to be forgotten. The Coffee Pot song was a music hall number which I have sung with the guitar, but the grip top sock one is a new one. Tune anyone?

  28. Jed

    Deleted an obnoxious comment criticizing me for being obnoxious. I’ll continue to delete abusive comments when they’re posted.

  29. Dub Dublin

    Since this thread has lived on into 2021, I’ll take this opportunity to add another similar warm-up/locution exercise (though this one is a great tongue-twister in general) that I learned many years ago. It is good enough that it should become the preferred words for the tune of Battle Hymn of the Republic. The whole family used to see how fast we could sing this without messing up on road trips – kids love it:
    The blue-black bugs bled red-black blood, but the red-black bugs bled blue (repeat 2 more times)
    The red-black bugs bled blue!
    Gory, gory, how peculiar! (repeat 2x)
    The red-black bugs bled blue!

  30. Sammy the Mule

    Another sleepless night. I had nothing better to do than look up this dittie I learned in a speech class at UGA in the early 1980s. So glad to know I’m not the only geek in the world who remembers this. Thank you, Bob Cramer.

  31. DJ Pancakes

    I saw it in an episode of Reno 911 and always wondered where it came from.. then I got a wild hair and googled the couple of words I knew for the heck of it and not only found the whole thing but got a history lesson from the comments. Super cool

  32. Danidrow

    I learned it slightly differently:

    What to do to die today at a minute or two til two?
    A thing distinctly hard to say but harder still to do.
    And we’ll beat a tattoo at a minute til two,
    A rat-tat-tat-tat and a rat-tat-tat-too,
    And the dragoon will come at the beat of the drum
    With a rat-tat-tat-tat and a rat-tat-tat-tum
    At a minute or two til two today,
    At a minute or two til two.

    My drama teacher who taught it to me said it’s an old British marching beat; it’s not “dragon” but “dragoon” (pronounced the same in the beat). A dragoon is a British military unit.

    • Jed

      I’m sorry to say that your drama teacher was wrong. It’s not a British marching thing, and it really is dragon, not dragoon. See earlier comments for detailed information.

  33. Jed

    I don’t seem to be able to convince people that we now know the correct words and where they come from and what they mean. So I’m closing comments on this post. If you’ve come here to post another guess, I urge you to read the comments that have been posted already.

Comments are closed.