The forgotten history behind the world’s most famous tongue twister

Stefan A
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For most of us, tongue twisters are simply an amusing childish wordplay. Nevertheless, little did we know there was quite a significant history behind one of the world’s most famous tongue twisters.

She sells seashells by the seashore“: this tongue twister take us back to the 19th century when the woman referred to simply as “she” was a real person and carried the name of Mary Anning.

Anning was born on 21 May 1799, in Dorset, southwest England. Her family had a rather unusual way of earning a living. It involved digging up fossils and selling them to people who visited the coast. Now, this might sound strange, but back in the 19th century, rich and middle-class people loved having curio cabinets as showpieces in their living rooms. These cabinets were often decorated with various natural relics including fossils, most of them souvenirs brought from abroad.

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray – Natural History Museum, London


Drawing of Mary Anning’s house in Lyme Regis, Dorset, England.

From a very young age, Anning, along with her brother, mastered the art of recognizing, collecting, labeling and cataloging the various fossils and remains they found. They unearthed their findings out of the cliffs of the Jurassic coast stretches along the southernmost edge of England, and is today designated a World Heritage Site.

For Mary, things changed rapidly when, still a child, her father sadly died in 1810. Although a very young girl at that point, she was forced into running the family business full-time in order to provide for her younger siblings. Her business could have been a lucrative one, but for the majority of her life Anning struggled to make ends meet. Some days she had to dig for hours just to extract a single fossil, which was far from enough to sustain the family.

When she was just 12 years old, Mary and her brother unearthed the skull of a four-foot “Ichthyosaur”, a prehistoric stealthy sea giant that thrived over 250 million years ago. The siblings dug out the rest of the skeleton a couple of months later, and the discovery brought them worldwide attention.

Drawing of the skull of Temnodontosaurus (originally Ichthyosaurus) Platyodon found by Joseph and Mary Anning


The Jurassic Coast at Charmouth, Dorset, England where Mary Anning discovered large reptilian fossils in the shales of Black Ven. Photo credit: Kevin Walsh

What’s fascinating is that these excavations occurred decades before Darwin first published his theory of evolution. It was also a time when people had little real knowledge of the ancient past of the planet. Furthermore, the majority of scientists asserted that animals did not go extinct, rather that they would migrate to a location more suited to their needs. That might sound silly seen from today’s perspective, but that was the reality of the 19th century.

Mary also unearthed fossils of plesiosaurs and a pterosaur. Around the same time, Gideon Mantell and William Buckland excavated their first dinosaur fossils too. These were all essential findings that brought clear evidence of the process of extinction.

When Anning’s findings were displayed, it initiated a considerable buzz within the scientific community. She was suddenly of close interest to the wider community of archaeologists and researchers. A notable geologist of those days, Henry De la Beche, started to create illustrations of the unearthed life forms in their natural habitat as he imagined it. All illustrations were based on the fossils found by Anning. La Beche generously gave the revenue from the illustrations to Anning as her financial struggles continued.

Sketch of Mary Anning at work by Henry De la Beche

Lithograph of Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus skeleton found by Mary Anning in 1823, published in transactions of the Geological Society of London, 1824.


Cast of ‘Plesiosaurus macrocephalus’ found by Mary Anning in 1830, “Muséum national d’histoire naturelle”, Paris. Photo credit

Mary Anning may not have been a trained scientist with a degree, but her findings changed the face of science forever. Her gift to the world was that she introduced what were until then unknown creatures, and rejuvenated the debate about mankind’s place in the universe.

Anning died of cancer at the age of 47. Charles Dickens was one of the first famous people to praise her in a wandering tribute, 18 years following her death. Throughout the 20th-century, a number of other authors acknowledged Anning’s life as inspirational. The famous tongue twister about her life was first recorded in 1908, by Terry Sullivan, who wrote:

She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.

Read another story from us: Umberto Eco wrote his first novel, “The Name of the Rose” at the age of 48 after he had been invited to write a short detective story

It was P.J. McCartney, in 1978, who confirmed that it was in fact Anning who served as the inspiration for Sullivan’s tongue twister.