She Sells Seashells: The Fascinating Truth Behind This Old Tongue Twister

by Laura Caseley
Laura is a writer, illustrator, and artist living in New York City.

Can you say “She sells seashells by the seashore” five times fast? It’s tricky!

And if you’re like most people, you’ve been twisting your tongue over that one for years.

In fact, people have been trying to say it without stumbling for 108 years.

But did you know it actually goes back even further than that? Almost a century farther, in fact, and the mysterious seashell-selling woman on the shore? She was a real person, and she changed how we understand our planet’s very history.

Mary Anning was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. She was the eldest daughter of a cabinetmaker, and the family supplemented their income by digging up fossils to sell to tourists on the shore.

The family was poor, and Anning never really had much of a formal education other than learning to read and write. But she’d end up changing the face of science.

In the early 19th century, there weren’t many options for scientifically minded women, especially poor ones.

But as women throughout history have always proved, if you have the will, you can do anything, even if society says you can’t. We’ve seen it time and again, from ancient history through the wartime women who constructed planes, and right up through today.

Read on to learn about Anning’s strange and often overlooked life, and the next time you check out some fossils or come across that famous tongue twister, remember her!

[H/T: Atlas Obscura]

We’ve all heard the old tongue twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore.”

But have you ever stopped to consider where the saying actually comes from?

Turns out, this seemingly meaningless phrase actually has fascinating origins — and it has nothing to do with seashells at all!

So, what is it really about?

Dinosaur bones and the fascinating woman who discovered them!

Mary Anning was born in 1799 in Dorset, England.

When she was young, her father taught her and her brother, Joseph, how to collect fossilized shells from the Jurassic Coast, a fossil-rich cliffside on England’s coast.

The Annings weren’t wealthy, and the fossils were actually a source of income for them.

They would sell them as souvenirs to tourists who came to visit the shore.

Starting when she was about 10 years old, Anning and her brother learned how to spot, collect, label, and catalogue fossils pulled out of the ancient stones of the cliffy Jurassic Coast.

Sadly, her father passed away in 1810, and the fossil hunting and selling skills became necessary for the family to survive.

At the time, it was popular for people to have curio cabinets full of fossils, specimens, and other natural wonders. So picking up a fossil from the coast was very popular with visitors.

Of course, the Annings still struggled, and for many years were on parish relief.

When Annig was only 12 years old, she and her brother uncovered a four-foot Ichthyosaur skull, seen here in a sketch. The Ichthyosaur lived about 250 million years ago.

A few months later, they’d unearth the rest of the skeleton, marking the first major fossil discovery of Anning’s career.

The skeleton was put on display, and generated quite a buzz.

Until that point, many people were unaware of the planet’s ancient history and of the now-extinct animals that once roamed it.

The skeleton was studied, sketched, and categorized, and already our understanding of the Earth was growing, as was their understanding of evolution.

By the 1820s, Anning was heading the family’s fossil business and working with other geologists and fossil experts to classify the various specimens Anning uncovered on her searches.

One geologist, Henry De la Beche, supported Anning by creating this image based on her fossils, illustrating what the ancient creatures might have looked like. He had prints created and gave the proceeds of their sales to her.

But Anning, despite becoming more and more known in the scientific community, would still struggle financially.

In 1823, when she was 24 years old, Anning discovered the Plesiosaur, a marine reptile with a long neck and flippers. You might recognize it as the basis for the Loch Ness monster.

She would also discover other new dinosaur species, rocking the scientific world and getting people talking about extinction, geologic ages, and evolution.

And this was 36 years before Darwin wrote The Origin of Species.

Her discoveries showed people creatures they had never even imagined and opened up a whole new way of thinking about the world and the animals on it.

In fact, it was these discoveries that cemented the idea of extinction. Prior to them, many people thought that animals didn’t go extinct, but just relocated to some distant place.

But it wasn’t all easy.

Because she was poor and female, many established scientists scoffed at Anning’s findings, and didn’t take them seriously until they were declared genuine by famous anatomist Georges Cuvier.

Worse still, other scientists shamelessly ripped off her work, passing it off as their own.

However, many people did celebrate her, including author Charles Dickens, who wrote about her accomplishments in 1856.

Today, though, Anning’s contributions to science have made her name known again, and she’s credited with changing how we understand the world today.

In 1847, Anning died from breast cancer. In 1908, the famous “she sells seashells” tongue twister was written, forever commemorating Anning — though its true meaning was eventually lost.


Without Mary Anning’s discoveries, our idea of prehistory might look very different today.

So the next time you try to say “She sells seashells by the seashore,” think of a young girl pulling a dinosaur out of the sand!

And to get a glimpse of a modern-day dinosaur, be sure to watch the video below. It’s hard to believe these creatures still walk our Earth…

If you love learning about lesser-known history, please SHARE this fascinating truth with friends and family!

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