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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?

31 Comments

  1. 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?

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  2. 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.

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  3. 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.

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  4. 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.

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    • 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

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  5. 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.”

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  6. 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.

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

    I’m Gob smacked! :-O

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

    lol
    i can’t believe this is true!!!

    Reply
    • 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.

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  9. 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.

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  10. 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?

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  11. 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.

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  12. 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. =)

    Reply
  13. 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.

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  14. 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.

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    • 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.

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    • 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.)

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    • 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.

      Reply
    • 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)

      Reply
  15. 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

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

      i love that because its funny

      Reply
  16. 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.

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

      Liked this, thanks

      Reply
  17. 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.

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

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

      Reply
  18. 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?

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

      Ya don’t

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

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

    Reply

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