One for Sorrow (nursery rhyme)

"One for Sorrow" is a traditional children's nursery rhyme about magpies. According to an old superstition, the number of magpies seen tells if one will have bad or good luck.

"One for Sorrow"
PiePica pica.jpg
Three magpies in a tree
Nursery rhyme
Publishedc. 1780


There is considerable variation in the lyrics used. A common modern version is:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.[1]

A longer version of the rhyme recorded in Lancashire continues:

Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten a surprise you should be careful not to miss,
Eleven for health,
Twelve for wealth,
Thirteen beware it's the devil himself.[2]


One magpie at the birth of Jesus, perhaps presaging sorrow for Mary:[3] Piero della Francesca's The Nativity

The rhyme has its origins in ornithomancy superstitions connected with magpies, considered a bird of ill omen in some cultures, and in Britain, at least as far back as the early sixteenth century.[4] The rhyme was first recorded in Samuel Johnson and George Steevens's 1780 supplement to their 1778 edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare with the lyric:

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
Four for death.[5]

One of the earliest versions to extend this was published, with variations, in Michael Aislabie Denham's Proverbs and Popular Sayings (London, 1846):

One for sorrow,
Two for luck (varia. mirth);
Three for a wedding,
Four for death (varia. birth);
Five for silver,
Six for gold;
Seven for a secret,
Not to be told;
Eight for heaven,
Nine for [hell],
And ten for the d[evi]l's own sell [sic]![6]

On occasion, jackdaws, crows and other Corvidae are associated with the rhyme, particularly in America where magpies are less common.[7] In eastern India, the erstwhile British colonial bastion, the common myna is the bird of association.[8]

A version of the rhyme became familiar to many UK children when it became the theme tune of the children's TV show Magpie, which ran from 1968 to 1980.[9] The popularity of this version is thought to have displaced the many regional versions that had previously existed.[10]

Popular cultureEdit

The name of the rock band Counting Crows derives from the rhyme,[11] which is featured in the song "A Murder of One" on the band's debut album, August and Everything After.

The first track on Seanan McGuire's album Wicked Girls, also titled "Counting Crows", features a modified version of the rhyme.[12]

The artist S. J. Tucker's song, "Ravens in the Library," from her album Mischief, utilizes the modern version of the rhyme as a chorus, and the rest of the verses relate to the rhyme in various ways.[13]

David Dodds used the rhyme as the chorus for his song "Magpie"; it also included the lyric "Devil, Devil, I defy thee", having been inspired by an older woman he gave a lift to once in his new car. As a supposed counter-curse to the bad luck brought by witnessing a magpie, the woman would say the expression and spit on the floor. The English band The Unthanks recorded a version of this song on their 2015 album Mount the Air,[14] and the song appeared in the BBC series Detectorists. The American alternative rock band The Innocence Mission featured a song called "One for Sorrow, Two for Joy" on their 2003 album Befriended. "One For Sorrow" on Megan Washington's album There There also features the rhyme.

Anthony Horowitz used the rhyme as the organizing scheme for the story-within-a-story in his 2016 novel Magpie Murders and in the subsequent television adaptation of the same name.

The nursery rhyme's name was used for a book written by Mary Downing Hahn, One for Sorrow: A Ghost Story. The book additionally contains references to the nursery rhyme. Further, Clive Woodall used One for Sorrow, Two for Joy as the title for his bird focused Young Adult novel.


  1. ^ P. Tate (2010). Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. New York: Random House. ISBN 978-1409035695.
  2. ^ "One For Sorrow". Bird Spot. 11 November 2020. Retrieved 23 November 2022.
  3. ^ Finaldi, Gabriele (1 December 1992). "Picture Choice: Gabriele Finaldi on pictorial wisdom in Piero's relaxed Nativity". The Independent. Archived from the original on 24 May 2022. Retrieved 2 February 2013.
  4. ^ I. Opie and M. Tatem, eds, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 235-6.
  5. ^ Johnson, Samuel; Steevens, George (1780). Supplement to the Edition of Shakespeare's Plays Published in 1778 Vol. II. London. p. 706. Retrieved 7 June 2023.
  6. ^ Denham, Michael Aislabie (1846). A collection of proverbs and popular sayings relating to the seasons, the weather, and agricultural pursuits / gathered chiefly from oral tradition. London: Printed for the Percy Society by T. Richards, 1846. p. 35. Retrieved 7 June 2023.
  7. ^ J. M. Marzluff, A. Angell, P. R. Ehrlich, In the Company of Crows and Ravens (Yale University Press, 2007), p. 127.
  8. ^ "With Death on its wings".
  9. ^ Wilkinson, Dean (18 July 2011). The Classic Children's Television Quiz Book. Andrews UK Limited. ISBN 978-1-908548-89-4. Retrieved 15 February 2021.
  10. ^ Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson, The Folklore of Discworld (London: Random House, 2010), ISBN 1407034243, p. 449.
  11. ^ "The Biggest New Band in America". Rolling Stone. 30 June 1994. Archived from the original on 15 November 2006. Retrieved 1 May 2022.
  12. ^ "Seanan McGuire: Songbook". Retrieved 1 May 2022.
  13. ^ Ravens in the Library, retrieved 5 June 2022
  14. ^ "The Magpie [David Dodds]".


  • Binney, Ruth (2004). Wise Words and Country Ways: Traditional Advice and Whether It Works Today. David & Charles. p. 223. ISBN 0-7153-1846-2.