Back in 1899, Percy Green called this a "nursery charm" to cure hiccups in his book "A History of Nursery Rhymes". Here's what he said about it:
To charm away the hiccups one must repeat these four lines thrice in one breath, and a cure will be certain…
When a twister twisting twists him a twist,
For twisting a twist three twists he must twist;
But if one of the twists untwists from the twist,
The twist untwisting untwists all the twist.
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951), edited by Iona and Peter Opie, this tongue twister was originally French and was translated from the French by Dr. John Wallis for Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae (1674). It was told to him by a Frenchman in 1653. In French it's called Quand un cordier, cordant, veut corder une corde. Here's the French version:
Quand un cordier cordant veut corder une corde,
Pour sa corde corder, trois cordons il accorde.
Mais si l'un des cordons de la corde décorde,
Le cordon décordant fait décorder la corde.
Interestingly, the verb corder in French means to twist into rope. Un cordier is a ropemaker.
Jim Hamilton sent me another version in English in 2009:
I am 53 now and in Australia but was born in England. My Scottish Grandmother taught me a tongue twister that may be a variation of this one. I was eight or nine at the time. It goes like this...
A twister of twists, once twisted a twist
And the twist that he twisted was a three twisted twist
In twisting this twist, the twist came untwisted,
And twisted the twist that the twister had twisted.
Thanks, Jim Hamilton.
Thanks for sharing that version with us Jim! -Mama Lisa