Hidden Histories of 3 Popular Nursery Rhymes

Humpty Dumpty

Though written for children, nursery rhymes often conceal references to historical events. Here are the hidden stories behind three popular nursery rhymes.

Humpty Dumpty

This classic nursery rhyme is also a history lesson in the English Civil War. Humpty Dumpty was not originally an egg, as immortalized by John Tenniel, illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass published in 1871. Rather, the name referred to a cannon used by the army of Charles I in 1648 to deter the opposing army of Parliamentarians. In fact, there are two preceding verses, now mostly forgotten, that name the expert gunner, One-Eyed Thompson, and the cannon, Humpty Dumpty. The cannon was mounted on a church tower and effectively defended the town of Colchester for nearly three months. Eventually, however, the church tower was knocked down and the cannon tumbled into the marsh below, never to be found. Thus all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty together again.

London Bridge Is Falling Down

The original London Bridge was built by the Romans, though has since been replaced numerous times. This bridge, as the song details, fell down. In fact, it fell down frequently due to disrepair, a far more mundane explanation than the widely posited reason for its collapse, invasion by Viking armies. The earliest citation of the lyrics date to 1744 in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, but a previous version in Henry Carey’s Namby Pamby records the line as “London Bridge is broken down.”

Ring Around the Rosie

Many have interpreted this rhyme as referring to the bubonic plague, which swept through England at the turn of the 15th century and again in the 17th century. This interpretation correlates the rosie rings with the red circular rashes that were symptoms of the plague, and the pockets full of posies with an herbal treatment to deter the terrible ailment. However, folklorists and historical linguists take issue with this interpretation because the rhyme did not appear in print until the late 1800s, hundreds of years after the plague. Also, there is no known reference tying roses to symptoms of the plague in historical texts of the time. This dark interpretation appears to be a revisionist history of a silly children’s rhyme.

What other nursery rhymes are you curious about? Have you heard any unusual origin stories of them?


  1. david canatella -  October 10, 2016 - 9:41 pm

    Upstairs(the rich)downstairs(the poor)we all fall down.

  2. david canatella -  October 10, 2016 - 9:37 pm

    Upstairs (the rich) downstairs(the poor) we all fall down.

  3. hi -  November 3, 2015 - 9:40 pm

    twinkle twinkle little star
    i run you over with a car
    throw you over a cliff so high
    hope you break your neck and die
    twinkle twinkle little star
    i run you over with a car

    • ckewish -  February 9, 2016 - 10:51 am


    • CoinToss -  February 22, 2016 - 1:34 pm

      a b c d e f g
      Barney is my enemy
      Put a gun to his head
      Pull the trigger, now he’s dead.
      Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
      Teletubbies is rated R!

    • Ashton Houston -  July 23, 2016 - 1:23 pm

      Abcdefg gummy bears are chasing me. One is red, and one is blue. One is knawing on my shoe. Now I’m running for my life cause’ the red one has a knife.

      I hate you. You hate me. Let’s get together and kill barney. With a bullet to the head and kick him out the door. No more purple dinosaur.

      • Bad Bullet -  August 29, 2016 - 5:43 am

        I hate you, you love me.
        Lets go hunt and kill barney,
        With a bang, bang shotgun,
        Barney’s on the floor.
        Theres no more stupid dinosaur.

    • Ashley -  September 15, 2016 - 5:06 pm


    • Josh -  September 28, 2016 - 6:50 pm


  4. Kerry -  July 12, 2015 - 10:20 pm

    What are the two preceding verses to Humpty Dumpty?

    • Apple -  October 17, 2015 - 11:22 pm

      The next 2 verses are as follows

      Humpty Dumpty sang a long song
      About the stupid gunner that’s wrong
      And then he saw the chocolate drip
      Down his nose and onto his lip

      The gunner did a very long dance
      And then he just pulled down his pants
      Then his ears snapped right off
      Then the gunner just couldn’t cough

  5. Charmaine -  January 16, 2015 - 3:59 pm

    Awesome fact! I never knew that!
    (I’m sisters with Bethanny!)

  6. Bethanny -  January 16, 2015 - 3:57 pm

    Very interesting!

  7. CleanFun -  November 19, 2014 - 4:00 pm

    Ring Around the Rosie is about smoking tobacco.

    • rebecca carmien -  November 20, 2014 - 9:53 am

      The story as I heard it was the “pockets full of posies” is a reference to the small bouquets of flowers hastily made up and distributed amongst the survivors of a town hit by plague, their purpose being to help cover the stench of death. The “ring around the rosie” was the circle of townspeople tending the pyre of bodies being burned in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, hence, “ashes, ashes”, and “we all fall down” attests to the futility of this practice. As I heard the story…

      • Josh -  September 28, 2016 - 6:52 pm

        I have heard that to

      • Martin -  November 28, 2016 - 5:59 pm

        I heard Pocket full of posey was because everyone carried around flowers in their pocket to help eliminate the smell of death and all around stinch of England’s poor civil waste disposal at the time

    • Weird dude -  April 24, 2015 - 10:49 am

      so true

    • Laura -  June 2, 2015 - 1:16 pm

      Hey guaren’t you going through the process of creating

  8. qwerty -  November 16, 2014 - 10:59 am

    Truthfully, when I was younger I had a strange premonition that Ring Around the Rosy was not as merry as I thought it was.

  9. Monica -  November 15, 2014 - 2:49 am

    I would like to know the origin of Rock-A-Bye Baby

    • cam -  November 22, 2014 - 11:27 am

      yeah i was thinking that too.

    • Shawyn -  January 9, 2015 - 11:41 am

      It, from what I read, is a reference to Native American custom of carrying a child in a harness. The mother would hang the child up while gathering in the woods. It was also said to be a way to keep a child safe in dangerous situations.

  10. louisa -  November 13, 2014 - 3:45 pm

    it sould bee: monkey

  11. WhatWhatintheWhat -  November 12, 2014 - 12:49 pm

    What what. Okay.

    • RainbowIcePowers -  November 13, 2014 - 3:48 pm

      nonono wait it shoud bee: underwear, cookie, minion, stewpeed, minecraft, crafting table, RainbowIcePowers, or Rosie334. Plz make a choice

      • WhatWhatintheWhat -  November 19, 2014 - 5:45 am

        RainbowIcePowers sounds pretty legit, but I have no idea why I must make a choice. Our lord and saving grace, Samwell, never had to make a choice. Unless you mean the ultimate sacrifice he made to what what in the butt.

  12. Marcell -  November 5, 2014 - 3:59 pm

    The okey cokey is about cocaine. It was used by alot of people before it became illegal. It was used hugely in china. You even used to see it being used in old films. You would see a person from the higher class take out a metal tin and have a sniff.

    • Forreall -  November 19, 2014 - 5:49 am

      Is that true? My dad told his mom used to snort tobacco because that was once a product that now is not considered okay. Really interesting, makes me wonder if it was actually cocaine lol.

    • Bob Lidstone -  January 9, 2015 - 8:34 am

      The action you describe is the taking of snuff, not cocaine. Snuff is tobacco that is finely ground to permit it to be taken by inhalation. It is still done and is in the same general vein as chewing tobacco in that it delivers nicotine without smoke.

  13. Random -  October 31, 2014 - 7:34 am

    They never said Humpty Dumpty was an egg in the rhyme..

    • Kamlack -  November 13, 2014 - 4:36 pm

      They never said anyone said it was an egg, they were just assuming that everyone imagined it to be so because that’s how everyone interprets it to be

    • raibow dash -  May 5, 2015 - 12:22 pm

      true though

      • raibow dash -  May 5, 2015 - 12:25 pm

        humpty dumty is dumb why did he sit on the wall

  14. Theresa -  October 27, 2014 - 11:34 am

    Jack and Jill, I’d love to know if the following explanation is correct. Jack and Jill represent the king and Queen of France, they go up the hill where their heads are cut off with the infamous guillotine. Jack`s head comes tumbling down and so does M. Antoinette’s after her husband’s. The rhyme continues with Jack’s head being wrapped in vinegar and brown paper. Now, that’s the extraordinary part of the story. Down here in Argentina, several friends with English and Irish ancestors still use vinegar and brown paper in not too serious wounds when out in the country side till they get a more decent dressing at home. Does this sound familiar to any one?

    • dave -  January 9, 2015 - 9:38 am

      Not familiar, but thanks for the survival tip. Vinegar and brown paper are fairly readily available, even in the boonies where it might take a while to get out to a doctor, or longer to get one in – or where the wound will heal without a doctor in time. It’s a good thing to know.

      • Rosie, Oh Rosie -  March 25, 2016 - 4:38 am

        Its been known for millenia that honey has antibacterial properties. I’ve read where it was used in Egyptian times for injuries suffered by workers on the pyramids.
        Not close to a Dr? Put honey on the wound with a dressing.

  15. K.S. -  October 12, 2014 - 9:01 am

    One explanation of why such horrible things could be tied to nursery rhymes is teachers of education sometimes make up rhymes to help children retain information.

  16. quamp -  September 22, 2014 - 12:25 pm

    I think there are as many variations of “Ring Around the Rosie” as there are people who have heard it. Another version of it I’ve heard is this one:

    Ring around the Rosies
    Flowers for your Toesies
    Squat little Josey
    We all fall down

    Another origin I’ve heard about this one was this: it refers to an old practice of rubbing flower petals or putting flowers on to make one smell better. Unfortunately, it didn’t work that often.

    • melinda -  November 11, 2014 - 7:37 am

      As children, we used to sing

      Ring around the rosies
      Pocket full of posies
      Upstairs downstairs
      We all fall down.

      As an adult, I took ‘upstairs downstairs’ to mean taking the dead plague victim from an upstairs room to downstairs to be taken away. I’d never heard of ‘ashes ashes’ until I was an adult. Of course, we all linked hands and walked in a circle, recited the poem and fell down at the end.

    • Kamlack -  November 13, 2014 - 4:40 pm

      I’ve never heard this or the one that ‘Melinda’ said she heard as a child

      • cam -  November 22, 2014 - 11:29 am

        never heard of that one either.

  17. frank -  September 19, 2014 - 2:56 pm

    Being in good spirits is medicinal according to the Proverb17:22. A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.

    • rodney -  September 22, 2014 - 9:34 am

      Ring around the rosie referes to a red ring which would apear on skin ounce you had plague. Pocket full of poseys refers to the stench of death every where people placed flowers under their noses. Ashes ashes all fall down those dieing and falling to ground

      • carrie -  November 10, 2014 - 2:48 pm

        None of the illnesses commonly referred to as the plague (bubonic and friends) present in that fashion. There is no “ring around the rosie”, and face masks full of pungent herbs were not widely used as a protective measure. If it were about the black death it would go: black lumps in groin and arm pit, fevered psychosis that makes us spit, vomit and bleeding, we all die now…

        • dave -  January 9, 2015 - 9:41 am

          Carrie – Duh! Your version doesn’t rhyme. Nobody will sing that one.

        • Ashley -  September 15, 2016 - 5:29 pm


      • Athena -  January 18, 2015 - 8:24 pm

        I heard the same: the rosie referst to the red ring around the red on one’s skin after the plague infected you. The pocket full of posies was to ward off the stench that hung around the infected. The ashes, ashes part was the burning of the dead. The ‘we all fall down’ refers to everyone dying of the plague because then there was no cure, right.

        • Ella -  September 19, 2016 - 11:17 am

          I feel horrible for singing these to my kids and grandkids!

      • Were_All_Mad_Here -  June 1, 2016 - 2:29 pm

        Actually the Ashes Ashes we all fall down means the deaths of all the people with the plague and then people burning all the bodies, so the plague would not spread even more

  18. TygreSyke -  September 18, 2014 - 9:53 am

    The rhyme that we know today

    Ring around the rosie
    pocket full of posie
    ashes, ashes
    we all fall down

    is not the original wording. It actually was like this

    Ring around the nosie
    Pocket full of posy
    ahchoo ahchoo
    we all fall down

    in the original the word was nose not rose. Meant to describe the color and “ring” that was around the nose when ill (plague).

    A pocket full of posy- well lets be realistic, back in the days of the plague people didn’t bathe regularly. A posy was a necessity. It was usually a piece of fruit cut in half, covered with spices and then wrapped in ones handkerchief to be carried in the pocket. Then when one was within range of another person whom they were going to speak to they would inhale deeply from the posy before speaking to avoid smelling the other person.

    I believe “ahchoo ahchoo” is self explanatory, as is “we all fall down.”

  19. TurningLeaves -  September 18, 2014 - 7:50 am

    Wow, I have honestly never heard ‘A Ring, a Ring of Roses’ sung with ashes. It was always ‘Atishoo! Atishoo!’ in my childhood.

  20. Ashley -  September 17, 2014 - 2:10 am

    I’m Gob smacked! :-O

  21. ummmmmm -  September 15, 2014 - 4:39 am

    i can’t believe this is true!!!

    • JohnR -  September 15, 2014 - 11:04 am

      I think the bodies may have been burned, but probably more due to the quantity of bodies than for disease prevention. At that time they had not discovered any reason for diseases, or how they were spread.

      • SeanC -  November 4, 2014 - 4:43 am

        People had connected corpses with disease centuries before the bubonic plague.

        Everyone understood that standing water with dead things in it wasn’t safe to drink, even if they didn’t know why.

        They all knew you didn’t keep corpses around, they all knew that meat rots and that rotten meat makes you sick, they all made the inferred connection between dead people and dying people.

        It was cloaked in superstition, sure, and the quantity may have played into it, but I think the intuition that diseased corpses spread disease was the deciding factor.

        If you look back through history, and hell, evolution in general, you’ll find all sorts of instances where people did the right thing for the wrong reasons, just because they intuitively understood it would work.

        Course, there’s even more instances where they did the wrong thing, but that’s survival of the fittest for you.

        • ckewish -  February 9, 2016 - 12:32 pm

          When I was a kid. I heard a second verse.

          Cows in the meadow
          eating buttercups
          Flash goes the lightning
          and we all stand up

          This was just probably added later a probably has nothing to do with the plague.

        • Merise Hetherington -  May 17, 2016 - 5:28 am

          Ben Franklin son in law practiced anatomy in their basement and collected cadavers from grave robbers. He died when cutting himself, not knowing of disease.

  22. Adam -  September 14, 2014 - 8:22 pm

    The explanation as I have always heard it makes perfect sense.

    The “ring around the rosie” was indeed a white circle around a bright red center, or sometimes a red circle around a black center, associated with any number of necrotic disease – the plague being the most popular.

    The “pocket full of posies” was because as the disease progressed, the sufferer would begin to stink, because of their rotting flesh, so they would fill their pockets with flowers to try to mask the stench.

    “Ashes, ashes” – when someone had died of the plague, their body was burned to prevent further spread of the disease.

    “A’tishoo, a’tishoo” – the original British version of the third line, referring to the sneezing or coughing fits that were often the final stage of pneumonic plague, a variation of the disease that attacked the lungs.

    …And “we all fall down” – despite all their efforts, as more and more people became infected, it was quite naturally assumed that everyone was eventually going to catch the disease and die. The last outbreak in England alone killed roughly 100,000 people, but over the course of the 400 years of the pandemic, hundreds of millions of people died from one form of the disease or another.

    Simply because there are no recorded instances of this, or similar, explanations, does not mean that the song’s origin was not something very similar. Because of the vast number of people who died from the plagues over a span of roughly 400 years, it’s no surprise that there is no recorded history of a little song like this. There is quite likely a LOT of history during those years that was never recorded. But it is certainly logical that parents would have created an easy-to-remember song for their children to be especially wary of people with the red lesions and of people who smelled more than normally of flowers or perfume.

  23. John -  September 12, 2014 - 11:29 pm

    The version more common in England is
    A ring, a ring of roses
    A pocket full of posies
    Atishoo! Atishoo!
    We all fall down

    I always assumed that the “ring of roses” was (one of) the posies.

    It’s a nursery rhyme, why would anyone expect a childish song to be in print before the late 1800s?

    • Adrienne -  September 23, 2016 - 9:09 pm

      This belief that it is about the plague is unfortunately something that people pick up and assume is true. It’s been repeated so often that people, such as many on this thread, simply accept it and the origin gets lost which is quite unfortunate.

      The plague reference did not show up as a theory until the mid 20th century. Also, MANY children’s rhymes have been in print since the time of Elizabeth I. Samuel Pepy’s wrote a great deal about life during his time, and included slang and limericks of the day. Books have been around a long time- as has poetry and fables and written text. Many survive to this day from the 1600′s- and “Ring Around The Rosie” has variations predating that we know today and came over a century after the various plagues.

  24. Lilly -  September 11, 2014 - 5:41 pm

    I have heard a lot of stories about “Ring Around The Rosie” actually, but one caught my attention. The story was “in the olden days (this story was retold by a child) there was this disease, and this disease made rosy-red circles on you. And it made your skin flake, thats why it says “ring around the rosy”, the people used to die because of this horrible disease, so when they died, they used to put these flowers called Posie’s on your grave, to show that you died of this disease, thats why it says “pocket full of posie). And when your skin flaked on your rash it looked like ashes, that is why it says “ashes ashes”. usually everyone who had this disease died, so that is why the song says “we all fall down”. I think this is a very smart thought as to what this song means, that is why when someone asks me what it means, i usually say that this is what i believe happened.

  25. Chester Copperpot -  September 11, 2014 - 10:21 am

    I’m really disappointed that the “two preceding verses, now mostly forgotten, that name the expert gunner, One-Eyed Thompson, and the cannon, Humpty Dumpty” were not recalled and revived by Dictionary.com in this article.

    What were those two preceding verses? Leaving them out was something of a let-down. Now i’m going to spend the rest of my afternoon searching for them. =)

  26. Laurence Bosma -  September 9, 2014 - 11:40 pm

    Fairy tales generally follow this similar pattern: The prince or white knight or the knight in shining armor comes and rescues the fair maiden or princess by slaying the dragon, they get married and live in a great big castle happily ever after. The prince or white knight or the knight in shining armor is Jesus, the fair maiden or princess is “the bride of Christ- the church”, the dragon is Satan, the great big castle is the new Jerusalem and happily ever after is eternal life.
    I believe all these fairy tales originated from Christian parents teaching their children how the bible works out in the end.

  27. BronxGal -  September 9, 2014 - 8:33 pm

    Ring Around Rosie: What about the ‘Ashes, ashes; we all fall down’ lines? That hints of illness and eventual death. Morbid, yes, but there is a history of songs about life’s insurmountable struggles in olden times.

    • Chester Copperpot -  September 11, 2014 - 10:11 am

      “ashes, ashes, we all fall down” was explained to me as the burning of all the corpses from a massive epidemic. “We all fall down”, we all die eventually. Whether “ashes, ashes” really refers to burning all the bodies, or just referencing “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”, I don’t know. Either option is possible, but the Bible passage would probably be more universal than local or regional means of disposing of bodies through cremation.

    • Annie S -  September 13, 2014 - 11:45 am

      Yah makes sense. Also what written history would there be when it concerned peasants? The article itself eludes to hidden meaning in surviving rhymes!
      If it was remembered it had to be important. (The Black Death reoccurred so it makes sense there must have been some advise instilled among generations of peasants.)

    • Megamom -  September 14, 2014 - 8:33 pm

      Yes, many folklore are passed down verbally for centuries before they are put into writing. Stories of what happened during the Black Plague would have certainly been told to children and grandchildren.

    • jesus -  September 15, 2014 - 7:07 am

      ashes ashes we all fall down
      they would burn the bodies and people who messed with the bodies would also get sick and die (and we all fall down)

  28. Cody dance -  September 9, 2014 - 2:31 pm

    I think there is a English rhyme about 2 serial killers who were hired by a man to collect bodies for research ,though I suppose it’s not a nursery rhyme Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief,
    Knox the boy who buys the beef!
    Ps I thought that the ring around the rosey rhyme was based on the plague

    • claudia -  September 15, 2014 - 3:19 pm

      i love that because its funny

  29. Winland -  September 9, 2014 - 11:27 am

    Ring Around the Rosie: We also were never told of any Roses tied to the hidden meaning of this rhyme. Allegedly, the Ring (or round patches) was the shape of the red rashes that appeared on the children first (as they were supposedly more easily susceptible due to their age and/or immune system’s strength/lack thereof), then adults soon after or sometimes hitting whole families in any one household (as they apparently would all live together in rather large family groups! They were a reddish color, therefore the “Rosie” or “Rosy” allegedly described this as such. The Posie, Pose, Posy, or poesy (as we were told as children, and believe you me…some of the various stories/tales told to us left me with some nightmares!), were apparently a symbolic ring with some small inscription on the inner side, or outerside that was etched as a personal meaning for the bearer and wearer. Some were said to be lover’s gifts, or as a regard to someone close to a person. Well, from what I recall, these posey rings (as they were apparently called back then), were what some either found lying around everywhere by surviving loved ones (where loved ones would go around sifting through the ashes of what was left of the bodies after being burnt to keep the plague away [Thus "Ashes, ashes, we all fall down (as in falling dead)], finding their loved one’s posey and putting them in their pockets as keepsakes. And/or the children would gather up the posey’s no one claimed, and have pocket’s full of them. And then they’d sell them.

    It’s been forever ago that I was told this stuff (pretty morbid if I do say so myself). But whatever/however the story really goes/it was changed, no one can/will be able to completely tell/interpret anymore. As so many of the real stories in truth, are changed far too much over time, that the real truth practically get’s lost and forgotten. Sad really! Certain histories should be saved. Contained in safe keeping, as to never be forgot. Even as gross and sickening a lot of them are/can be.

    And also sad how adults, overtime, would make up and use songs in this way, told to their children as to hide the truth of certain things that happen/happened. So their kids wouldn’t be afraid. So they could sleep at night & feel safer. As well as to enable the adults to TRY and forget everything. Then compared to now, is so night and day because of that, it’s just ridiculous and amazing, all at once! And again, because of this, a lot if lost and forgot to the point today, we don’t and cannot even tell or know what is truth from false. Realistic from Myth and so on.

    • Annie S -  September 13, 2014 - 11:59 am

      Liked this, thanks

  30. Mollie -  September 5, 2014 - 9:06 am

    When I was a kid I learned all about the Influenza plague of the early 1900′s, and one of the rhymes I heard that little kids used to sing was:

    I caught a little birdy,
    his name was Enza
    I opened the window
    And Influenza.

    I found it pretty interesting.

    • DC in BC -  October 12, 2014 - 8:58 am

      Thanks for the info on that little ditty regarding the so-called Spanish Flu, Mollie.

  31. Annette -  September 2, 2014 - 8:15 am

    How do I know if I selected correctly for the words of the day?
    Where will I find the correct answers when I’m wrong?

    • Batbe -  September 12, 2014 - 5:23 pm

      Ya don’t

  32. Anita Ann Draughon -  September 1, 2014 - 3:44 am

    Very interesting stuff. I have a better understanding of this college jargon. Thank you.


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