The truth of Ring Around the Rosey and other Mother Goose rhymes

Charlemagne's mother?

One analysis of 200 traditional poems notes at least 40 clear references to death by everything from choking to decapitation.
  • One analysis of 200 traditional poems notes at least 40 clear references to death by everything from choking to decapitation.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Hey, dude: I sent this in October. If there's a holdup, at least e-mail me and tell me, and tell me you don’t know the answer or whatever the problem is. I don’t even care if you publish this. This is more of a “for MY information” letter.

Hey, dude: Here’s a question that’s been bugging me since I heard this song by Korn. The song is about nursery rhymes and their hidden meanings. I know for a fact that “Ring Around the Rosey” was about the bubonic plague, but I’m puzzled by the hidden meanings of other nursery rhymes such as “London Bridge is falling down,” “One, two, buckle my shoe,” and “Knick knack paddywhack, give the dog a bone.” I have only to guess at their meanings — a threat to London, a servant/master song, and alcoholism. Am I anywhere near the meaning, or are these nursery rhymes open to interpretation? —[email protected]

E-mail is great, isn’t it? An idea whams into your brain pan, and just as fast you can zap it anywhere on the globe. No more wandering around the house talking to ourselves. Now we can strew our mutterings all over the place. We need never again have an unexpressed thought. A problem comes up only when we assume the recipient, too, is operating at warp speed. That an instant question demands an instant reply. That the medium is the message. The M.A. staff gnomes are getting a pretty good chuckle out of that one. Once the e-mail is downloaded and printed, it has no more currency than any piece of crayoned foolscap delivered by the postal service. It will fit neatly in any of a dozen bins stashed around the M.A. office, already overflowing with unanswered queries dating back to the Ford administration. As for personal replies and progress reports...now the gnomes are laughing so hard, they’ve got the hiccups. It’s chaos over here. We’d thought of turning over a new leaf for the new year, dispatching 20 questions a week to keep up with the workload. But when we turned over the leaf, we found a big slug under it, and we’ve decided to go back to business as usual.

So on to Mother Goose and her rhymes. I’m interested that you know “for a fact” that “Ring Around the Rosey” is about the plague. (The “rosey” is supposed to be the red rash of the plague, the “pocket full of posies” the herbs people carried to ward off illness or cover its smell, and the falling down part is self-explanatory.) The ultimate children’s lit authorities, the authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, disagree. The “falling down” lines are not from the original, and the poem didn’t appear in print until 1881, long after its supposed mid-1600s origin. But the Oxford authors are generally skeptical of most of such analyses. Finding hidden political and social meanings in fairy tales and nursery rhymes has been popular sport for 150 years or so, and much of it, apparently, is far-fetched and unverifiable.

It may be the grisliness of some of the popular rhymes that inspires the speculation. One analysis of 200 traditional poems notes at least 40 clear references to death by everything from choking to decapitation, not to mention kidnapping, beating, animal cruelty, and general misery and catastrophes. The 18th-century version of Saturday-morning TV, I guess. Some students of nursery rhymes explain that many of these verses have very ancient (Druidic, Viking, Icelandic) origins, children have always been fascinated by the grim and gory, and parents have not always been so protective of their little darlings’ sensibilities as they are today. Books of politically correct rhymes and fables have been available since the mid-’50s, when Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm became a scandal.

There are about as many stories of who Mother Goose is as there are explanations of what “Rock-a-bye Baby” really means. She might be Goose-footed Bertha, mother of Charlemagne, who was plagued by kids who wanted her to tell them stories. There are also tales of a French rendition of Goose-footed Bertha and a German version, Frau Gosen. The first print reference is French, a book dated 1650, that contains the line, “...like a Mother Goose story.” The 1697 French collection of fairy tales, Tales of My Mother Goose, is the first book-title reference. It contains versions of “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and other favorites.

The Oxford authors have searched the backgrounds of most enduring nursery rhymes and have found them to be everything from jokes and riddles, verses from old ballads, and lessons in ethics, morals, counting, and reading, to street vendors’ calls, drinking songs, occasional political satire, prophesies and good-luck charms, and crude jokes. Until they began to be set down in books in the 17th Century, they were part of oral tradition in all countries of Europe. Take “London Bridge,” for example. Some version pf this very long rhyme about rebuilding a crumbling bridge exists in almost every language. Historically, it seems to be based on the very ancient and widespread practice of entombing a living human inside a bridge pillar to ensure that it won’t fall down. The Norse did destroy a London tower in the 11th Century, but it’s not considered the true source of the rhyme. “One, two, buckle my shoe” is just a counting-out rhyme adapted to various children’s games or a poem used to teach counting. Versions are found throughout Europe. So is “This old man” (“Knick knack paddywhack”).

When you look at a full collection of the very oldest recorded nursery rhymes, you find a few that unfortunately have been discarded along the way—at least in their original form. Take this early-18th-century f'rinstance from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book: Little Robin redbreast / Sitting on a pole / Niddle, noddle went his head / And poop went his hole.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader