54

In Mary Poppins (1964) Jane and Michael stipulate that their new nanny must:

Love us as a son and daughter, and never smell of barley water.

I've always wondered why they include this. If they mean actual barley water, which apparently is popular in various parts of the world (being from America I'm not familiar with it), then it isn't really clear why the children hate it so much. It's not just that they don't want to drink it; they don't want to even smell it.

Part of me thinks they didn't mean literal barley water at all. They could also be referring (in a tongue-in-cheek way) to:

  • Beer / ale. Usually made with barley, unpleasant to smell on someone, and of course means the person is drunk.

  • Scotch. Made with barley (otherwise it's a different type of whiskey), not an unpleasant smell but also means the person is drunk.

Adults in the room would also recognize that, if the children specifically request that their nanny not show up stinking drunk, it would mean that it's happened before (further showcasing their parents' ineptitude at nanny-picking).

Is the "barley water" reference ever explained?

  • 5
    I was made to drink barley water as a kid and, though I don't remember the smell, the taste was quite special, and I never came to like it. I understand that some people may enjoy it, but it is understandable that some people will not. It is like any food with special flavour/smell/texture. – Taladris Apr 8 at 14:31
  • Pluto, it has utterly no connection to beer/ale. They indeed just mean "barley water" ! It's just that the old crappy Nanny would smell of the stuff. – Fattie Apr 11 at 12:27
  • For foreigners who don't understand what the hell this is about :) the most famous commercial barley water is: Robinson's brand – Fattie Apr 11 at 12:29
64

Assuming the original Mary Poppins book by P.L. Travers is anything to go by, their objection doesn't seem to be the smell of barley water per se, but more that their old unliked nanny (Katie Nanna) stank of the stuff and they've associated the smell with her.

Well, Mr Banks went off with his black bag, and Mrs Banks went into the drawing room and sat there all day long writing letters to the papers and begging them to send some Nannies to her at once as she was waiting; and upstairs in the Nursery, Jane and Michael watched at the window and wondered who would come. They were glad Katie Nanna had gone, for they had never liked her. She was old and fat and smelt of barley-water. Anything, they thought, would be better than Katie Nanna – if not much better.

They're keen for the new nanny to be the polar opposite, to whit; young, skinny and not smelling of barley water.

70

Barley Water is not, in fact, beer or scotch, although those are good guesses in the absence of context. Water in which barley has been boiled was considered a health drink dating back centuries, in the same way that cod liver oil was a healthful supplement for American kids in the '50s. The British version is made by boiling barley, straining, and then pouring the hot water over lemon rind. It's disgusting, kids know it's disgusting, and the Banks children wanted no part of anyone who was going to make them drink it.

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    I think it's quite nice – Valorum Apr 8 at 14:59
  • 5
    @Valorum Different strokes for different folks. I did not appreciate it growing up. My mother said it would keep me "regular". I would much rather have had Tang. – Seneca Apr 8 at 16:20
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    It's also worth mentioning that tastes literally change as we get older, particularly bitter ones. We're genetically programmed to find bitter flavors somewhat distasteful due to them often being associated with poisons, but we taste it less as we get older (and presumably have learned what is and is not poisonous). – FuzzyBoots Apr 8 at 17:47
  • 4
    Based on the number of upvotes this answer has gotten, it seems that not liking barley water is a pretty popular opinion... – PlutoThePlanet Apr 8 at 21:57
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    There is an enormous difference between what is now sold as barley water and traditional barley water. The main supplier in England is now Robinsons and their product information suggests that, after dilution, you get 3.8% sugar, 3.4% lemon juice, other flavours and only 0.5% barley. I have tried it recently and you can't taste the barley. It is just slightly cloudy lemon (or other fruit) soft drink. – David Robinson Apr 9 at 0:13

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