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?