The phrase sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me, and its variants, were originally used by children to express or encourage an attitude of indifference to taunts, insults or other verbal abuse.
The earliest occurrences of this phrase that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:
1-: From Reasons for adopting the rational system of medicine, by F. R. Horner, M.D., published in the Northern Times (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Thursday 23rd July 1857—the author was criticising a medical practitioner who had converted to homeopathy:
The Lilliputian begins to dandle the Brobdignagian [sic]; and the latter, like our army in Flanders, “swears horribly” 1 at the presumption, impostors, liars, quacks, humbugs, and other delicate invectives. These are cowardly weapons. “Sticks and stones (says the schoolboy’s rhyme) may break men’s bones, but bad names will not hurt me.” A Britisher loves “a fair stage and no favour.” Let the redoubtable Goliath try his strength with the stripling—we have a sympathy for the weak—the little stone from the brook, if flung from the sling of truth, will bring the giant low.
1 This is an allusion to the following from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (London: Printed for R. and J. Dodsley, 1761), by the Irish novelist Laurence Sterne (1713-1768):
Our armies swore terribly in Flanders, cried my uncle Toby.
2-: From The Coleraine Chronicle and North of Ireland Advertiser (Coleraine, Derry, Ireland) of Saturday 18th January 1862:
Baron de Camin in Enniskillen.—The Baron was successful in getting up a row in Enniskillen. First the Commissioners had a “shindy” over the debateable question of whether he would or would not get the hall. A majority decided that he should, and the minority, having failed to frighten the care-taker into their way of thinking, endeavoured to foil the Baron by introducing a crowd of rowdies whose object was not to hear the “distinguished Roman.” What “Barney Maglone” would call a “ruction” was the result. Those who wanted to hear the Baron could not, because those that didn’t would not let them. The Enniskilleners would not stand this. They have tastes of their own, and were rightly determined to have them gratified. The Baron did not invite the roughs, and if they did not like to hear what they believed to be the lying utterances of an imposter, they might have kept at home. “Sticks and stones break one’s bones, but names will never hurt one.” There was a regular stand up fight. True to their historic fame, the Protestants of Enniskillen cleared the hall of their opponents in gallant style; and the freedom of speech was vindicated. The baffled rioters then took a mean revenge. They broke windows and destroyed the property of people who had nothing whatever to to [sic] with the Baron de Camin. The civil authorities interfered to quell the riot, which they succeeded in doing before a great deal of damage was done, but not until some twenty or thirty had made themselves so conspicuous as to justify their capture by the police. Some of those arrested were sent to prison for a week, or a month, according as their zeal in the cause of religion incited them to an irreligious mode of proving it. We got on better in Coleraine. Those who did not like the “Gospel according to Baron de Camin,” remained at home. Few liked it, and the consequence was that the lecturer had his ire roused, and came out in his true colours by inveighing against all religions in general.
3-: From The Christian Recorder 2 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA) of Saturday 22nd March 1862:
COURAGE—TRUE AND FALSE.
Reader, did you ever see a large boy thrusting his fist into the face of a smaller one, and daring him to fight? What kind of feelings did the sight raise in your breast? Were they not of contempt for the larger, and of pity for the smaller boy? Did you not feel like taking the part of the smaller boy and protecting him? Yet mean and cowardly as it is, how many such instances do we see? You can scarcely pass along the streets without witnessing something of this kind every day. Passing up one of the streets of our city, I espied two boys fighting, and upon inquiry found, that one of the boys had been teasing and troubling the other until as he said he had “enough of him.” Was this true courage? No! If your comrades trouble you, let them go on, and never mind them; they will soon get tired when they find that you take no notice of them. Noticing an injury is like adding fuel to the fire: it only makes it greater. Remember the old adage, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.” True courage consists in doing what is right, despite the jeers and sneers of our companions. Show me the boy or girl that has the courage to say, No! and I will show you a boy or girl that will succeed in the world.
2 The Christian Recorder was published by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States, for the Dissemination of Religion, Morality, Literature and Science.
4-: From The Advent of Justice. A Discourse delivered in Music Hall, Boston, Sunday, Nov. 16, 1862. By E. H. Heywood 3, published in The Liberator 4 (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of Friday 2nd January 1863:
The safety of America is not to educate her citizens to war, but in avoiding the causes of war; in removing the injustice, the dishonesty, which alone induced the present conflict. Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound ? A hot dispute among a parcel of children in one of our streets the other day was about to effloresce in fists and clubs, when a little Irish girl struck up,—
“Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But names can never hurt me,”
and dissolved the quarrel. Ragged ruddy, a mere slip of poverty, nourished by the heavenly manna which slides from the roofs of five-storied affluence, in explaining to me how she quelled turbulent boys, from those infant, outcast lips there fell precepts which statesmen might well heed.
3 Ezra Hervey Heywood (1829-1893) was a U.S. activist associated with the abolitionist, labour, feminist and individualist movements.
4 The Liberator (1831-1865) was a weekly abolitionist newspaper.
5-: From The Tiverton Gazette and East Devon Herald (Tiverton, Devon, England) of Tuesday 13th March 1866:
EMPTY VESSELS MAKE LOUD SOUNDS.
Ever since the days when the bears devoured the Israelitish boys, who mocked and shouted after the prophet 5, have those boys had their imitators among the witless and and [sic] thoughtless, though under the more merciful dispensation of the Gospel they have happily escaped a participation in their doom. But as in those days, so in these, it is usually the young and foolish who give vent to their excited feelings by senseless hootings at their elders and often their superiors, at any and everything they do not agree with or fail to comprehend. And though being hooted at, does not necessarily make the person subjected to such insult either a prophet or a man superior to his fellows, still it is in no sense derogatory to him, nor does it in any wise lower him in public estimation; in fact such conduct now-a-days serves only to provoke a smile of pity at the ignorance which practices it, and which imagines that so puerile a mode of annoyance can seriously affect any man of sense.
If it were not that such conduct indulged in to an unlimited extent, was liable seriously to injure the moral character of the youngsters who are prone to indulge in it, it would be beneath contempt. But as too much wine is apt to make a man drunk, and too many sweetmeats to make a child sick, so too great a latitude in street-hooting is apt to make a thoughtless youngster into a public nuisance, and therefore, for his own sake, it is needful to put a check of some sort on his proclivities. That anything more than this is needful in our town at the present moment, it seems ludicrous to suppose, notwithstanding the outcry that has been made of late concerning the conduct of the boys and girls, and the stringent measures which rumour declared were to be employed for their punishment. Of course our remarks must only be understood to apply to derisive or contemptuous hootings, since the law of the land provides that the public ear shall not be outraged by blasphemous or indecent language with impunity. There can be no question that the boys and girls of the factory have been guilty of some little excess in the public manifestation of their feelings, since their employers thought it needful to give them a salutary check by threatening dismissal to any one in their employ found insulting persons by hooting at them in the street. This, with the salutary working of time which generally brings wisdom, will, doubtless, have the desired effect of putting a stop to this foolish practice, and we trust there may be no truth in the report which reached us last week that some of the lady subscribers to the various charities of the town intended to show their disapproval of such conduct by withdrawing their subscriptions and dispensing their charity privately. With regard to this subject, we cannot do better than direct the attention of our readers to letters from two of our correspondents which treat of it, and also to the old school rhyme
“Sticks and stones will break our bones
But calling names, wont [sic] hurt us.”
5 This is a reference to the story of Elisha and the two bears in the Second Book of Kings, 2:23-24:
—King James Bible (1611):
23 And he went vp from thence vnto Bethel: and as hee was going vp by the way, there came foorth little children out of the citie, and mocked him, and said vnto him, Goe vp thou bald head, Goe vp thou bald head.
24 And hee turned backe, and looked on them, and cursed them in the Name of the Lord: and there came foorth two shee Beares out of the wood, and tare fortie and two children of them.