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Twinkle, twinkle: The hidden purpose behind the silliness of nursery rhymes

Twinkle, twinkle: The hidden purpose behind the silliness of nursery rhymesNursery rhymes rely on meter and rhyme to stick into our memories. When we remember them, we do not remember just the words; we remember them in time, sometimes even with their pitch.

Before children acquire words and syntax, parents naturally talk to them in a particular style. In the late 1980s, psychologist Deborah Kemler-Nelson proved that mothers all over the world speak to their children differently than they speak to adults. She called this speaking style “motherese.” When speaking to babies, we speak slowly in a higher pitched voice and tend to repeat phrases. Similarly many nursery rhymes slow down the speaking process and include repetition to help children learn. When children learn to speak and later to read, they acquire what linguists call “phoneme awareness.” What does that mean? Well, we aren’t born with the sounds of language in our heads, but rather we learn what the discreet, separate parts of sounds are as we learn language. Children do not automatically know when one word starts and another begins.

(Would you believe an error is probably responsible for the name Mother Goose? Find out, here.)

Some child psychologists claim that nursery rhymes help children learn these discrete units sound in a language. Children between the ages of two and three are just learning how to form sentences. Since they do not always understand when one word ends and another begins, the meter of nursery rhymes helps them learn the dynamics of what will be their mother tongue. Think about “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Each syllable is separated and enunciated because of how the meter and tune work. Speech therapists also recommend reciting nursery rhymes to help children with speech delays accelerate their language acquisition.

English nursery rhymes, like The Cat and the Fiddle, Pattycake, and Solomon Grundy, date back to the early 1600s. Others, like Old Mcdonald, Itsy Bitsy Spider, and This Old Man, originated in the early 1900s. Of course, nursery rhymes are not limited to the English language. French, Russian, Chinese: most languages have some sort of rhyming songs for children. In fact, Brother John, the English nursery rhyme made famous by Charlie Brown, was translated from the French original, Frère Jacques.

(Why do so many fairy tales contain a character named “Jack?” We can clear that up for you, here.

People have speculated that nursery rhymes contain codes or were veiled political messages. A few of them, such as “Old King Cole” and “Mary had a Little Lamb,” may have been connected to real-life events, but for the most part, they are completely fictional, non-allegorical stories. “Mary had a Little Lamb” is based on a poem by Sarah Jospeha Hale about her neighbor Mary who had a pet lamb.

Do you remember the nursery rhymes of your childhood? What are your favorites?

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108 Comments

  1. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  November 24, 2013 - 7:29 am

    Ring Around the Rosy is about the Black Plague.

    Ring around the rosy = the purple lumps the Black Plague sufferers got
    A pocket full of posies = in their pockets people carried flowers that were supposed to keep away the plague.
    Ashes, ashes, we all fall down = so many people died that a lot of them were burned because there was no room or time to bury them.

    Creepy, huh?

    @Killa-King1:
    What?!?! I don’t understand a word you said!!

    Reply
  2. Killa-King1 -  June 4, 2012 - 8:47 am

    Dark+? meaning the Devil and next time don’t put you’re Name and LastName and age!

    Reply
  3. Killa-King1 -  June 4, 2012 - 8:44 am

    the Doctor is fixing the heart the doctor dont like the dark, a doctor that help’s the health to make it more stronger! it is the doctor from his tongue that eat a bunch of food also eats blood, from another. The Doctor that sits by him self and don’t like the weather but his own doctor office! creates files and creates exam from the body.
    Name:_______________ LastName:______________ Age:____
    Answer this question and see what happen when i mean the doctor!!!!!

    1.) tongue
    2.) heart
    3.)Blood =?
    Answer: one of these 3 question you have to answer if you dont get it go back to the story / and read!
    Doctor = A
    Doctor = B
    Doctor = C
    Answer these question please from above.
    Fix+?
    Doctor+?
    Health+?
    you have the wrong answer the answer are here A.)Tongue B.)Doctor= A
    C.)Doctor it is abc because it is talking about doctor and tongue Doctor= A Doctor is for the you’re name that is you are the doctor and you are _cut you’re tongue_ and you are at the Dark because the Devil is cutting slicing you’re head that’s what Doctor means!
    Thank you for finishing the process 0__0
    Dark+?

    Reply
  4. maya -  March 14, 2012 - 3:19 pm

    nursery rhymes where the first political comics. Mary Mary quite contrary is about bloody Mary, guillotines and graveyards. Humpty Dumpty is about a cannon.

    Reply
  5. Karen O'Hanlon -  February 11, 2012 - 9:19 am

    Awareness is all. Yes, it is important for adults to know the background history of everything! Even fairy tales and Mother Goose rhymes. However, that does not mean we should not use these rhymes with children. After all, they are enthralled by the curious word usage and rythmic cadences that enhance their language learning. Young children are not thinking adult thoughts nor should they be. They are in a different stage of life, and you are not teaching the negative historical aspects of nursery rhymes by enjoying the language of Mother Goose. I think it is best to leave history in its historical context and not drag it into the enjoyment of Mother Goose rhyming with small children. Of course, if you cannot enjoy the rhymes because of your negative focus–best not to share nursery rhymes with children. The will definitely pick up your negativity. When kids reach their teenage years, however, it is more relevant to introduce them to a critical understanding of the past. Of course, if they have never heard nursery rhymes, it may not mean much to them when you do that.

    Reply
  6. diamond -  January 13, 2012 - 10:17 am

    hickery dickery dock
    the mouse ran up the clock
    the clock striked once
    the mouse ran down
    hickery dickery dock
    tick tock tick tock
    hickery dickery dock

    Old mother hubert
    went to her cupboard
    to give her poor dog a bone
    but when she got there
    the cupboard was bear
    and so the poor dog had non

    Three blind mice
    three blind mice
    see how they run
    see how they run
    they all run after the farmer’s wife
    who cut off their tale with a carving knife
    have you ever seen such a thing in your life
    as Three blind mice

    Reply
  7. #NotGonnaLiee! -  January 13, 2012 - 6:16 am

    Okay Say Bah Bah Black Sheep How Did The Master Know He Wanted To Get The Wool Back In Days Wip Wip Black People Gone & Pick Cotton How You Know Whee Wanted Too Pick The Cotton Bias Bastard (ImJustSaying)
    # ImNootBiased!

    Reply
  8. Vicaari -  January 9, 2012 - 1:37 pm

    I love this beautifully articulated and amusing article. Making me going back to childhood days remembering how my mother taught me many things as well as I, at least hope so, did, or tried to do, the same to my one and only emulating my mother’s way, perhaps.

    @ Ellie… fantastic analitical explanation of Mary Mary quite contrary; loved it.
    @Lexi…enjoyed the Baa baa black sheep; so much to learn when I read.

    Thanks

    Reply
  9. jyo -  January 7, 2012 - 11:59 am

    Most of the rhymes talk about the English and the French during the dark ages, the 100 years war, etc. Some of them talk about the foolish decisions taken by the then kings and queens as talking about them openly could land people in trouble. Examples- humpty dumty (a cannon placed on a weak wall), sing a song of six pence(aristocracy), jack and Jill(French king and queen who were slaughtered), ring-a-ring roses(war, epidemics and death), baa baa black sheep(taxes)..

    Reply
  10. Jim -  January 5, 2012 - 9:36 pm

    I always wandered about Dutch and Deutshland

    Reply
  11. tomsboat -  January 4, 2012 - 7:39 pm

    A chinese nursery rhymes: Shining stars

    Reply
  12. Ward3 -  January 2, 2012 - 9:22 am

    I love “The Charles Addams Mother Goose”
    It may be considered dark but this is what I imagined when I heard these rhymes when I was young. Life is not perfect nor should we expect it to be. Have fun and enjoy them as you want.

    Reply
  13. Will -  January 2, 2012 - 9:13 am

    Ring Around the Rosy is a creepy one. “Ring Around the Rosy” is depicted as funeral. Pockets full of posies means disease and sickness, and ashes ashes we all fall down explains how countless empires fell because of the black plague

    Reply
  14. Lexi -  January 2, 2012 - 8:34 am

    I love nursery rhymes and knew about this (the study on how children devlop their speaking and language abilities better with the rhythms in the songs) from awhile ago – can’t quite remember where I first read it, though. An easy way of identifying this pattern with some common sense would be watching how something acts with their dog – the high pitched voice, repetition and slow, measured words is easily spotted if you are around at least two dog owners (or cats, or any other animals in the same realm of treatment).

    I never heard of the ‘political’ aspect but I was taught by my parents how nursery rhymes were also used to convey messages throughout generations. To remember, I guess. Like, take ‘Little Bo Peep’:

    The story goes, basically, that Little Bo Peep was watching her sheep but took a nap, deciding that they would come back and not stray her side. But, as the sheep where not being corralled, they broke free and wandered on their own. When she finally found the, there were bad consequences for both the sheep and, by relation, for her.

    That could be interpreted for shepherds and shepherdess’ or farmers, or, it could be viewed on a broader scale as this:

    When you’re on the job, or watching over something/someone that is entirely in your realm of responsibility, don’t let your attention stray but a moment for there is always the chance of consequences on both sides – and, don’t be naive enough to think it won’t happen ‘just this once’ (as Little Bo Peep is naive to think the sheep will come back ‘with their trails behind them’), or you will not learn from it.

    I don’t know, maybe my family and I over think things but I think it’s a good theory. Just because researchers can’t find one event that is the origin of these rhymes does not entirely rule out them being based on some form of reality to be conveyed through to the children (and I’m not talking about rhymes like ‘Mary had a Little Lamb’, where the authoress based it off of a neighbor).

    Side note: I noticed in the rest of the comments a mini-debate around whether the nursery rhyme ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ is racist or not. Really? You can’t even include the word ‘black’ anymore or it’s racist?

    Baa, baa.
    black sheep,
    Have you
    any wool?
    Yes, marry, have I,
    Three bags full:
    One for my master,
    And one for my dame,
    And one for
    the little boy
    Who lives
    in the lane.

    All I see there is a story about a servant (not a slave) who cut the wool off of the sheep – who were black – and gave the bundles, specifically, to the house’s master (or owner, as would be a modern translation), the wife/woman of the household he was working for and then a boy down the road.

    I think people are becoming much too sensitive. Read a book like ‘Kidnapped’, where the boy and most of the characters were white and you’ll have them refer to the head of households, employers and such as ‘Master’. Is that racist against them? No, it’s called the way people use to speak – as people were much more formal in the 16th,17th and 18th century (to name the realm of these rhymes and this book).

    Master, as referring to something as the employer, is the same as saying a Master in Economics – they’re both at the highest level of their field but one is in hierarchy are the other in skill.

    Reply
    • tim -  July 20, 2014 - 7:18 pm

      “one for my master”
      “one for my dame”
      “one for the little boy who lives down the lane”

      - teaching children there are rich and poor people in the world, and you’re going to be a slave to your partner, so they can’t share with you because they’re already living to work for 3 other people.

      Reply
  15. Cat -  January 2, 2012 - 12:15 am

    L-Guy et al., as to the high-pitched voices used when speaking to babies, Desmond Morris has some interesting observations on that and other developmental issues in his fascinating classic book, The Naked Ape. I highly recommend it. EnjoyM

    Reply
  16. pee -  January 1, 2012 - 4:11 pm

    lameos!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Reply
  17. bta -  January 1, 2012 - 3:10 pm

    Humpty Dumpty is not a king, it is an old cannon that was given by the king to a small village so they could protect themselves, however it fell off the village wall and none of the kings blacksmiths could repair it.

    Ring around the rosie is not the triangle trade routes, but the bubonic plague. The “ring” is one of the first symptoms of the disease. pockets full of posie were to make the smell of death be more bearable. the ashes were the reference to when there were so many bodies, there was no where to bury them, and to minimize contamination, they were burned.

    Also, the Mary, Mary, quite contrary contains a reference to the guillotuines set up during the French revolution.

    Reply
  18. Denise -  January 1, 2012 - 5:53 am

    It’s interesting to read the many concerns about potential “side effects” of reciting certain rhymes to children. Consider that as children learn the rhymes they are just words. It is adults who define and assign negative connotations. If you don’t believe or desire negative images don’t perpetuate them by explaining them that way.

    Reply
  19. YnysWydryn -  January 1, 2012 - 5:44 am

    Please stop arguing about alleged racism in everything. You are being logical, level-headed and using common sense. These are not the guiding principles of the “politically correct” set. You are wasting your breath with these people: they will look for offence everywhere, whether it’s there or not and, because they are not interested in either facts or intentions, they always find it.
    In fact, they probably think it racist that the words here are black (shock!) and the background is white (horror!),

    Reply
  20. hossam -  December 31, 2011 - 9:45 pm

    i love this website !!! very interesting article ( : the nursery rhymes of my childhood was in arabic because i’m from egypt

    Reply
  21. Kathleen -  December 31, 2011 - 9:19 pm

    Adding to Joyce22, isn’t “Ring-around-the-Rosie” about the Black Plague or something?
    How sinister… O_O

    Reply
  22. Into Words -  December 31, 2011 - 4:39 pm

    My favourite is…let’s see…..Mary had a little lamb is so cheerful and it’s not based on anything scary or bad. I think that’s why,if anyone asks. And it’s new years eve,so HAPPY NEW YEARS EVERYONE!!!!!!!

    Reply
  23. Writeaholic -  December 31, 2011 - 3:43 pm

    @Dave
    I believe so, but one would have ot know the basis of the languege already, obviously. But it think that is a very good idea.

    @Pauline
    Really? I didn’t know that.

    Reply
  24. Lefty -  December 31, 2011 - 12:06 pm

    HAPPY NEW YEAR! PROSPERO ANO NUEVO! Have a safe and wonderful evening!

    Reply
  25. Leticia -  December 31, 2011 - 11:39 am

    @Sonia
    A la ru ru baby , a la ru ru ya
    Duérmase mi baby duérmaseme ya,
    Porque si no se duerme viene el cucuy y se lo comera.

    Reply
  26. AJ -  December 31, 2011 - 10:37 am

    Where may I find a vocal warm up in another language, preferably Spanish, that would teach phoneme awareness? I have used a vocal warm up to teach English sounds that do not exist in non English languages.

    Reply
  27. Ellie -  December 31, 2011 - 9:08 am

    one rhyme which many poeple don’t know about is ‘Mary Mary quite contrary’ which refers to the Queen Mary.
    Mary, Mary, Quite contrary – This line is accusing Mary of going against her father and brother just for the sake of it.
    How does your garden grow? – This line is mocking Mary because she found it hard to become pregnant, in other words, nothing would grow inside her.
    With silver bells – This line is laughing at Mary because she enjoyed the sound of church bells and this was considered unfashionable at the time.
    And cockleshells – This line is about Mary’s husband, Philip, who had many affairs with other women. In those days this was called ‘cuckolding’.
    And pretty maids all in a row – This line is about the fact that Mary was supposed to have some baby girls who were born dead and buried in a row.

    Reply
  28. Regina -  December 31, 2011 - 6:48 am

    @Ipswich
    I agree with you. By the time those nursery rhymes were create, the only way to “teach” the facts of life (nature & society) to children was by means of those silly chants.
    Even today, when we’re studying, many of us use reciting as a technique.
    Happy New Year!!

    Reply
  29. bumpyRd -  December 31, 2011 - 5:10 am

    I don’t know about nursery rhymes being racist (does “eenie, meenie etc. count as a nursery rhyme?) but I have definitely seen how the most insidious forms of racism are the very ones that one is accultured to from early on, so that by adolescence one is unlikely to question them.

    I also wonder how much racism tends to be perpetrated on the back of “innocent” superstition. I remember how I would get in trouble for pointing out how our teachers were conditioning us to be racist during my school years, which were almost cut short because I had had my awareness raised by then.

    So, just like racism never existed–according to some–it certainly never was embedded in our culture? Okey dokey.

    Racism is not solely the white people’s failing, although white racism has likely caused the most suffering.

    Cheers,
    -bumpy

    Reply
  30. Jeanna -  December 30, 2011 - 11:41 pm

    @sonia- a few years ago, the choir I was in sang a Spanish song. Can’t remember what it’s called, but I think it’s “Canta, canta pajarito,” or something similar.

    @most of the rest of you- do you really think these rhymes are racist, etc.? That’s just sad.

    @JJRousseau- awesome rhymes!

    Reply
  31. Catty (NickName) -  December 30, 2011 - 9:59 pm

    Very intresting, now I know that what I use on babies all the time is called motherese. It is a very exciting to learn about this, indeed. And you made it so much clear, since I’m just a little ten year old girl, LOL :3. Anyways,that is reallyy nice to learn, dictionary.

    @Jane Smoot

    Please watch your language, some kids read this stuff you know!

    ~Catty

    Reply
  32. Joyce22 -  December 30, 2011 - 8:04 pm

    P.S. Baa Baa Black Sheep was first published in 1744. It was the custom of that time to call the oldest male in a household Master, just as it was to call the woman of the household Dame. If you want to take it as a reference to slavery, have fun.

    Reply
  33. Joyce22 -  December 30, 2011 - 7:57 pm

    I am sure there are probably hidden messages in some of the nursery rhymes, if they weren’t there to begin with, the altered forms probably put some in. There are hidden meanings (real, imaginary, made up) in lots of things, books, names, phrases, etc. So it stands to reason that there are probably political, social, racist, sexist, etc….meanings in some of them. But getting silly about a sheep being racist because it is black is just stupid. Grow up people, most sheep are white, only a few are black, it the proportion were reversed it would be the white sheep of the family, end of subject. Anytime you are looking for something to take offense to, you will find it. Should I be offended because Humpty Dumpty is always depicted as a white egg? And that by saying that he fell, that white people are stupid and clumsy? And the fact that he was ‘cracked up’ is refer ring to whites as crackers? or that they are crazy? Doesn’t that sound stupid? And so what if some of them are slurs, have derogatory meanings, or are monarchistic, militaristic, speciesist, ableist, have oppresive over tones, etc. about other things? Most of them were written over a hundred years or more ago, Humpty appears in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1872) just 7 years after the end of the Civil war. If you don’t like’em, don’t read or recite them to your kids, but stop getting your panties in a knot because you think someone is calling you something bad in a hundred + year old rhyme. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humpty_Dumpty touches on the possible meanings of that particular rhyme. I am sure if you google each individual rhyme with the word ‘meaning’ you will find plenty of more information about such things.

    Reply
  34. Dr.P -  December 30, 2011 - 6:47 pm

    Ring around the Rosy has nothing to do with the Black Plague (The Great Death). The earliest written record is 1881, 550 years after the Black Plague and 225 years after the last plague. For more info: http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/more/483/

    Reply
  35. pet -  December 30, 2011 - 6:55 am

    how strange most of the rhymes consist of things and person falling down?
    jack fell down broke his crown..
    london bridge is falling down..
    humpty dumpty had a great fall..
    down the bough breaks the cradle will fall…
    we all fall down…

    Reply
  36. Pauline -  December 30, 2011 - 12:24 am

    Humpty Dumpty is not about an Egg – Humpty Dumpty was the name of a small dumpy canon

    Reply
  37. Archon -  December 29, 2011 - 11:52 pm

    @ lube

    I think you meant “Whither”, not wither.

    Reply
  38. Ritu -  December 29, 2011 - 10:18 pm

    I am a kindergarten teacher and I love my rhyme session. I admire the way children enjoy their action while they sing ‘I am a little teapot’ & ‘Insy wincy spider’. Actually while singing action songs along with their language development children improve their listening skills and motor skills.

    Reply
  39. Sarah (age 17) -  December 29, 2011 - 9:42 pm

    @ Archon
    @ L-guy

    I’ve heard it both ways:
    “Ring around the Rosy. Pocket full of Posy. Ashes, Ashes,. We all Fall Down”.
    “Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses Pocket full of Posy, achoo, achoo, we all fall down!”
    I remember playing this game me and my friends would hold hands in a circle and spin as fast at we could at the end of the rhyme we “fell down” (on the grass)

    @ Betsy
    yes I do, I heard it from my friend’s grandma “Lizzy Borden took an ax and gave her mother forty whacks and when she saw what she had done she gave her father forty-one”
    of course she rely didn’t swing 40 time’s I think 17? 18? time’s,
    AND OF COURSE she was never convicted!.

    Reply
  40. loretta -  December 29, 2011 - 6:58 pm

    some of those nursery rhymes are just too sick and twisted. i can’t imagine why parents would recite them to their children. i mean poor ole humpty getting all cracked up. and jack and jill. lots of them are nothing but terror stories that small children shouldn’t have to hear. it’s all too twisted if you ask me. no wonder some children turn into crazy whacked out weirdos. parents should think about what they are putting in the minds of their children at such young ages. geeeeeeeezzzzzz why are they so weird shouldn’t they be nice and sweet? maybe that’s why some people grow up to be murders and evil. that twinkle thing doesn’t seem to be so bad but i can’t remember all of it so i’m not sure about that one either. if you have to rhyme to your children censor it for goodness sake.

    Reply
  41. Victoria Generalao -  December 29, 2011 - 6:37 pm

    Awesome facts!

    Reply
  42. donna -  December 29, 2011 - 5:58 pm

    Curly Locks! curly locks! wilt thou be mine?
    Thou shall’t not wash dishes, nor yet feed the swine,
    But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam,
    And feed upon strawberries, sugar, and cream!

    Reply
  43. Shaina -  December 29, 2011 - 5:00 pm

    You are right about nursery rhymes, but how about Lizzy Borton?
    Please mention how nursery rhymes say bad things.
    Thank you

    Reply
  44. BH -  December 29, 2011 - 11:06 am

    Ring around the posey does NOT have anything to do with the black death. It is a factoid — something that has been repeated so often that people believe it is a fact, much like that factoid that factoid means little or side fact.

    Reply
  45. ThinkThingsThrough -  December 29, 2011 - 8:40 am

    @linz

    “linz on December 27, 2011 at 1:50 am
    Baa baa black sheep is not racist for pity’s sake! It’s related to the phrase, ‘Black sheep of the family’ and refers to being the odd one out. If it was baa baa red sheep no one would bat an eyelid. I think some ppl are looking for signs that just aren’t there.
    Also, I think when we look at the’offensive’ language used in some rap songs and pop songs lately by ppl who are members of that race which find it offensive, then finding a non-existant racist vibe in a nursery rhyme pales into insignificance.”

    #1- It’s very interesting that you assume that Jane Smoot (to whom you were replying) is black just because she brought up a point about “Baa, Baa, black sheep”, and being of the same race as someone who wrote an offensive rap/pop song does not automatically mean people (of that race) condone the songs.

    “…by ppl who are members of that race which find [Baa, baa, black sheep] offensive…”

    #2- I am not saying the nursery rhymes definitely have hidden racist or insulting meanings, however, the examples you gave (“‘Black sheep of the family’ and refers to being the odd one out”) could be viewed negatively in the light of slavery’s racist roots.

    #3- “If it was baa baa red sheep no one would bat an eyelid.” No, someone probably would be standing up for the Native Americans…

    You have a right to your own thoughts, but please think them through before applying them to other people.

    Reply
  46. Shelly Griffin -  December 29, 2011 - 8:02 am

    I think singing the nursery rhymes and other children’s songs helps more than just learning the nursery rhymes by themselves. I am 60, and still find myself singing these things!

    Reply
  47. Shelly Griffin -  December 29, 2011 - 8:01 am

    Lizzie Borden took an ax,
    Gave her mother 40 whacks.
    When she saw what she had done,
    She gave her father 41.

    Reply
  48. Dan -  December 29, 2011 - 6:18 am

    Blah, blah, black-sheep

    Reply
  49. Thinkaboutit -  December 29, 2011 - 5:26 am

    So many nursery rhymes are monarchistic, militaristic, speciesist, ableist or otherwise describe or involke some other form of oppression. Quite sad actually!

    Reply
  50. MsRawrie -  December 29, 2011 - 5:08 am

    @Linz

    I totally agree with you. People are constantly looking for racist connotations in everything! Stop it people! If there is no explicit racist comment or joke within something, then LEAVE IT ALONE. STOP pulling it apart and breaking down each word to find a pittance of something that could be considered “racist”. If you are making an effort to find some derogatory remark in a NURSERY RHYME… then you need to stick with your day job.

    Reply
  51. Cherokee -  December 29, 2011 - 4:08 am

    I think twinlke twinkle little star represents the birth of jesus and the wise men following the star to him.

    It makes perfect sense if you listen to the whole rhyme.

    Reply
  52. waybac -  December 29, 2011 - 3:10 am

    in all nursery rhymes and most fairy tales, there are hidden agendas; too numerous to go into detail. but for sure there are political utterances as well as racial and sexual undertones in these children’s stories. for further proof of how we begin harming our children at an early age, just look at Disney fairy tales. also i recommend watching mickey mouse monopoly, and then doing some serious research on how our socially constructed, white, patriarchal society is always pushing its agenda.

    Reply
  53. Paula -  December 29, 2011 - 2:21 am

    Not so much a nursery rhyme as a children’s round, I really like(d) Michael Finnegan:

    There was an old man called Michael Finnegan
    He grew whiskers on his chinnegan
    The wind came up and blew them in again
    Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again

    There was an old man called Michael Finnegan
    He kicked up an awful dinnegan
    Because they said he could not sing again
    Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again

    There was an old man called Michael Finnegan
    He went fishing with a pinnegan
    He caught a fish and dropped it in again
    Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again

    There was an old man called Michael Finnegan
    He grew fat and then grew thin again
    Then he died and had to begin again
    Poor old Michael Finnegan, begin again

    There was an old man called Michael Finnegan,
    He kicked up an awful dinnigan
    ‘Cause they said he must not sinnigan
    Poor old Michael Finnegan… begin again.

    Reply
  54. ABC -  December 29, 2011 - 12:26 am

    The original song says about child sacrifice and public execution it seems.

    Reply
  55. ABC -  December 29, 2011 - 12:25 am

    We sang and played this game…(the original rhyme has different words it seems which speak about child sacrifice…and public execution practiced those days.)

    Reply
  56. ABC -  December 29, 2011 - 12:23 am

    oranges and lemon
    sold for a penny
    All the school
    girls are also many
    The grass is green
    and the rose is red
    Remember me when
    I’m dead dead dead.
    We played this game singing the song.
    ( The original rhyme has different words it seems which
    says about child sacrifice practiced those days…public execution…)

    Reply
  57. ABC -  December 29, 2011 - 12:00 am

    oranges and lemon
    sold for a penny
    All the school
    girls are also many
    The grass is green
    and the rose is red
    Remember me when
    I’m dead dead dead.

    Reply
  58. ABC -  December 28, 2011 - 11:45 pm

    C Jones on December 27, 2011 at 11:44 am

    I once heard that the nursery rhyme “ring around the rosey, a pocket full of posey…we all fall down” (as in dead) was really referring to a fatal disease that was prevalent many, many years ago. I forget the name of the disease.

    Read more – http://w.po.st/share/entry/redir?publisherKey=Dictionary&url=http%3A%2F%2Fhotword.dictionary.com%2Fnursery-rhymes%2F&title=Twinkle%2C%20twinkle%3A%20The%20hidden%20purpose%20behind%20the%20silliness%20of%20nursery%20rhymes%20The%20Hot%20Word%20%7C%20Hot%20%26amp%3B%20Trending%20Words%20Daily%20Blog%20at%20Dictionary.com&sharer=copypaste
    It is believed to be about the deadly ” plague”

    Reply
  59. Miss Kitty -  December 28, 2011 - 9:04 pm

    Jane Smoot on December 26, 2011 at 12:19 pm
    This is interesting but I think you are leaving out some facts. I have always heard that disturbing racist and bigoted insults are hidden in nursery tales, like against Swedish people, or black people, like in Bah Bah Black Sheep? Is this true? You are a dictionary, so I count on you to tell if this is the real deal. Thank you for exposing myths and scary ideas too!

    Jane,

    Why don’t you go out and correct a current wrong, (like poverty), instead of looking for yet another area to infect with political correctness?

    Not everything has to be racist…

    Miss Kitty

    Reply
  60. dennis balcom -  December 28, 2011 - 8:08 pm

    This entire time seventeen years to be exact I’ve always wondered why we use nursery rhymes and the purpose of them. Now, thanks to dictionary.com and we the people who bring this website to life I finally know why nursery rhymes were brought into existence. Thanks dictionary.com for always providing essential information when I need it the most.

    Reply
  61. Happysurfer -  December 28, 2011 - 7:39 pm

    Nursery rhymes are hardly taught in school here in Malaysia ever since we changed the medium of instruction from English to Malay. Sad..

    Reply
  62. lube -  December 28, 2011 - 6:52 pm

    Thank u Maureen
    this is my favorite too
    “There was an old woman tossed up in a basket,
    Ninety-nine times as high as the moon;
    Where she was going I couldn’t help but ask it
    For in her hand she carried a broom.

    “Old Woman, Old Woman, Old Woman,” quoth I.
    “O Wither, O Wither, O Wither so high?”
    “Why? To brush the cobwebs off the sky!”
    “Shall I go with thee?? “Aye, by and by.””

    Reply
  63. DoveTail -  December 28, 2011 - 5:57 pm

    I’m constantly amazed that ppl can pick to pieces, the innocent stories & nursery rhymes. Okay some are not quite so innocent – but that’s life isn’t it? And we baby boomers didn’t think badly of them, we didn’t have nightmares thinking about Humpty Dumpty’s cracked shell or Jack breaking his crown etc etc.
    WAKE UP! Today’s violent material on TV, in games and in the news are far worse. There’s an innocence with nursery rhymes and stories that our children need for the ever-shortening childhood they experience. For the short time that they believe in them (& Santa Claus), there’s no harm done. It’s all fun & games and for those whose lives are full of abuse, at least they have a form of escapism eg. I come from an abused childhood and my book Heidi was a classic that I read and re-read, wishing I could be her. It helped me though the bad times. My favourite nursery rhymes? Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater and Georgie, Porgie
    Don’t get on here often, so pls don’t expect responses.

    Reply
  64. $NAK3 DA BO$$ -  December 28, 2011 - 2:13 pm

    I like this paragraph but yea I still hate reading :} :}

    Reply
  65. Al -  December 28, 2011 - 1:30 pm

    I have always been told while growing up that the nursery rhyme was “Ring of Roses”. A ring, a ring of roses. A pocket full of posies. A-tish-oo, a-tish-oo; we all fall down. The ring of roses was place around the neck of person dying from the Plague as some sort of respectful ritual. The pocket full of posies refers to how in the 1500s, posies were kept in people’s pockets because they believed that it would ward off the Black Death or the Plague. A-tish-oo refers to sneezing and being ill while the falling down suggests death.

    Reply
  66. JJRousseau -  December 28, 2011 - 1:18 pm

    Thank you, Dear Brother or Sister in kind
    The simple act of pushing keys, relaxes some mind
    We Woof out simple — for simple we be.
    We weep for Lady Glencora — Our Cat being Free
    Her container is buried Neath the Crab Apple Tree.
    The Container she’s done. — we’ll miss perceptions of Glee.

    Reply
  67. johnny -  December 28, 2011 - 12:38 pm

    @sonia
    I remember caballito blanco, los pollitos dicen and pin pon from my early childhood

    search for them on youtube

    Reply
  68. klem39 -  December 28, 2011 - 12:36 pm

    I read some where that there were no nursery rhymes before a couple hundred years ago, as children were not expected to live past 5 years. With mortality reaching up to 50% parents didn’t want to get too attached to them. It was only when the middle class employed Nannies that the children started to get some attention and being lullabied to sleep. Befor being shipped of to school at age nine.

    Reply
  69. Savannah -  December 28, 2011 - 12:19 pm

    Some nursery rhymes are kind of disturbing to sing to babies. For instance:

    -Humpty Dumpty (he isn’t an egg, he is actullay a king from long ago)
    -Ring Around the Rosies (a plaugue that people died from in Europe)
    -Rock-A-Bye Baby (the baby falls out of a tree!)

    And there are even more! Look at the history of nursery rhymes though. It’s really interesting.

    Reply
  70. The Griot -  December 28, 2011 - 9:26 am

    Everything can be made racist, sexist, or any other kind of “ist” based on the intent of the speaker and listener. No word, sentence or story is inherently an “ism” except that the intent of the sender and the receiver makes it so. Notice, it takes two to engage in this “ism” tango. When I grew up in Alabama in the 1950′s, Little Black Sambo was a recurrent character in children’s stories designed specifically to contaminate the society with images of racial inferiority and supremacy. We didn’t let it prevail. But at the same time, World War II stories made us feel good while making us hate the Germans, Japanese and Italians. That sentiment endures Be careful about stigmatizing nursery rhymes. No matter their original intent, they can always be useful to learning. Hidden meanings, codes and agenda’s that remain hidden are completely irrelevant. People miss-translate the stories of the Bible all the time which might be more dangerous than hidden meanings in nursery rhymes.

    Reply
  71. Lefty -  December 28, 2011 - 8:47 am

    For C Jones hope this helps Black Plague noun
    the epidemic form of bubonic plague experienced during the Middle Ages when it killed nearly half the people of western Europe [syn: Black Death]

    Reply
  72. kate -  December 28, 2011 - 8:43 am

    Fascinating read: An Annotated Mother Goose by Ceil Baring-Gould William S. Baring-Gould .
    It gives the historical background and explanations for many nursery rhymes.

    Reply
  73. Haeji Kim -  December 28, 2011 - 7:49 am

    wasn’t Ring Around the Rosy referring to the Traingle company workers when the building burned down during the Great Depression? of course it could be for many things.

    Reply
  74. Dutch Girl -  December 28, 2011 - 5:49 am

    To Betsy:

    “and when she saw what she had done, she gave her Father 41″.

    Reply
  75. Allison -  December 28, 2011 - 5:13 am

    C Jones
    It is the lack Death. I had to do a report on it a few years ago.

    Reply
  76. King Viz -  December 28, 2011 - 2:51 am

    C Jones: Ring A Ring of Roses, A Pocket Full of Posies… as it was originally written and should stay (because it makes more sense and originated in Britain), refers to the Black Death, when people used to carry flowers around to cover the awful smell of death that was all around. When the sufferers started sneezing it was a sign that they were nearing their demise and priests used to come in and bless them before they died which is why we now say “bless you!” when somebody sneezes.

    Ring of Rosey on the otherhand is a mistake of grammar: Ring of ___ (a noun should follow, surely not an adjective, as in “rosy” or “skinny” or “stupid”).

    CJ Casey: as far as I know the above is historical fact. If you’re concerned about whether it’s 100% fact I guess it’s time to stop writing on forums and start working on that Flux Capacitor!

    Reply
  77. King Viz -  December 28, 2011 - 2:21 am

    There seem to be opposing views on some of the meanings behind nursery rhymes which might contain hidden messages, some of which may be racist: I reckon almost all published text and all broadcasts contain hidden meanings or subliminals, so why single out a nursery rhyme?

    Bah Bah Black Sheep does have the black sheep agreeing to get some wool to the master, dame and boy down the road, but the master is not a white sheep in this nursery rhyme and nor are the other characters. It would only be racism if the others were white sheep right? (i.e. if a division was being made between members of the same species with derogatory overtones unjustly placed on one and not the other merely because of their external appearance? And what if the nursery rhyme was on about two native americans who have peculiar names such as Black Sheep, or soldiers with code-names?

    The truth is some people just have to pounce on anything that they can see some sort of reference to people that are different from other people, even animals or cups of coffee cannot escape the madness. Well guess what, every person falls into the category of being different from other people, even twins. So think about that as you watch your Winter Holiday Snow-Androgenous-Humanoid-Form melt and Bing Crosby’s “I’m Dreaming of An Arian-Dominated Christmas” fades out in the background.

    Reply
  78. jiya -  December 27, 2011 - 10:14 pm

    @ dear Lefty, that disease was a rosy rash in which coughing and sneezing are the major of all the symptoms and became a very fatal disease in 19th century in England and the only cure to that was the smell of poises of herbs but still it was not enough and the line Ashes Ashes means the blackening of the skin and the line They all fell down cites that they all died…hope it helped you :))

    Reply
  79. Rustgold -  December 27, 2011 - 10:13 pm

    Bah Bah Black Sheep was a children’s song on serfdom (slavery); and it wasn’t colour related (not American for a start). Imbecilic preachers of political correctness will tell you that only blacks were under slavery; that’s not true. In England (where the rhyme comes from), slavery was practiced against lower class whites up to (and including) the 19th century (including child slaves in mines).

    Anyway, Bah Bah Black Sheep was 1700′s, and was a protest children’s rhyme against rural serfs (slaves) needing to hand over most of their produce to their masters.

    Reply
  80. jb -  December 27, 2011 - 7:19 pm

    Discreet is used incorrectly in paragraph one; however, discrete is used correctly in paragraph two.

    Reply
  81. Lefty -  December 27, 2011 - 4:38 pm

    Ring around the Rosy. Pocket full of Posy. Ashes, Ashes,. We all Fall Down”. You probably have a vision of children holding hands in a circle, rotating slowly…. So sad that it was reference for the Black Plague!!

    Reply
  82. Betsy (age 12) -  December 27, 2011 - 4:34 pm

    Does anyone else remember “Lizzy Borden took an ax, gave her mother forty whacks”?

    Reply
  83. C Jones -  December 27, 2011 - 11:44 am

    I once heard that the nursery rhyme “ring around the rosey, a pocket full of posey…we all fall down” (as in dead) was really referring to a fatal disease that was prevalent many, many years ago. I forget the name of the disease.

    Reply
  84. Mary -  December 27, 2011 - 10:38 am

    @sonia:
    I remember from my childhood, one about a snail: “Caracol, caracol, caracolito, caracol, caracol, ¡ay que bonito! Saca tus cuernos al sol, saca tus cuernos al sol”.

    There are much more of course, it’ll be long to put them here.

    Reply
  85. Maureen -  December 27, 2011 - 9:40 am

    MY favorite is:
    There was an old woman tossed up in a basket,
    Ninety-nine times as high as the moon;
    Where she was going I couldn’t help but ask it
    For in her hand she carried a broom.

    “Old Woman, Old Woman, Old Woman,” quoth I.
    “O Wither, O Wither, O Wither so high?”
    “Why? To brush the cobwebs off the sky!”
    “Shall I go with thee?? “Aye, by and by.”

    Reply
  86. ponypony -  December 27, 2011 - 6:51 am

    Have you ever thought about the real meaning of some of the nursery rhymes? I mean, for ring around the rosy it is all about death….

    Reply
  87. Liza with a Z -  December 27, 2011 - 5:31 am

    When my friends started having kids, I’d always include a Mother Goose book. The reactions from the adults were a mixture of “Wow! I’m glad you got these” followed by “because I forgot most of them!” I do pair it with Dr Seuss books, which are a little more educational.

    Reply
  88. Joyce -  December 27, 2011 - 4:25 am

    Sonia,
    I just attended a workshop called Literacy and Language for ESL teachers.
    Check out your local library for nursery rhymes in different languages. I do not speak Spanish, but there are many nursery rhymes and songs available. Check back later while I see if I can find the name of some books.

    Reply
  89. linz -  December 27, 2011 - 1:50 am

    Baa baa black sheep is not racist for pity’s sake! It’s related to the phrase, ‘Black sheep of the family’ and refers to being the odd one out. If it was baa baa red sheep no one would bat an eyelid. I think some ppl are looking for signs that just aren’t there.
    Also, I think when we look at the’offensive’ language used in some rap songs and pop songs lately by ppl who are members of that race which find it offensive, then finding a non-existant racist vibe in a nursery rhyme pales into insignificance.

    Reply
  90. Archon -  December 26, 2011 - 10:18 pm

    @ L-guy

    The words in Ring Around the Rosy are “Ashes, Ashes”, referring to the bodies which were cremated to prevent further infection.

    Reply
  91. Archon -  December 26, 2011 - 10:14 pm

    While “Brother John” is the English version that everyone learns, Frere Jacques doesn’t translate to “John.” It means Brother JAMES.

    Reply
  92. Said -  December 26, 2011 - 9:03 pm

    This is interesting, however, as we live in Asia, we also let our children sing western nursery rhymes. But I wonder if this will confuse our children in acquiring local words. I am interested if there is any study on this.

    Reply
  93. Ipswich -  December 26, 2011 - 8:03 pm

    Interesting…I wonder if this is connected to the classical education method – “trivium” (three parts). In the first part, rhetoric, the student memorizes through recitation.

    Reply
  94. JJRousseau -  December 26, 2011 - 8:02 pm

    Symbolic Parable, nursery rhyme, Story
    Some may be pedantic while others just Gorey
    Consciously relating to find common ground
    The Jingle of Bells tolling are more than they sound. Oui?

    Reply
  95. BOB -  December 26, 2011 - 6:25 pm

    POKEMON

    Reply
  96. Book Worm :) -  December 26, 2011 - 6:07 pm

    Cool.

    Reply
  97. RayShell.O.L. -  December 26, 2011 - 5:59 pm

    This is very interesting. I remember seeing in another website that everyone around the world– no matter what country– always speaks to babies in a higher pitch.

    My favorite nursery rhyme was probably Humpty Dumpty because I thought it was weird hwo there would be an egg that falls and cracks itself but remains alive and doesn’t ahve juice coming out of it. :p

    Reply
  98. L-guy -  December 26, 2011 - 5:01 pm

    I have heard about the political side of the nursery rhymes but not the side for babies. People who often talk to there dogs lovingly talk in a high pitched, slow, repetitive way, just like talking to babies….that just came to my mind. Interesting.

    There are also historic meanings to the nursery rhymes. The most well know is Ring Around the Rosy. It talks about the Black Death. The last part “achoo, achoo, we all fall down!” means they all got sick and fell dead. You have to think about the rhymes before you accept them.

    I agree, the rhymes often have racist meanings which I hate about them.

    So, that was a semi-interesting article…..The Dictionary could do better than that though.

    Reply
  99. L-guy -  December 26, 2011 - 4:52 pm

    Second comment!

    Reply
  100. Dave -  December 26, 2011 - 2:26 pm

    Could learning a country’s nursery rhymes facilitate the learning of its language?

    Reply
  101. Cyberquill -  December 26, 2011 - 1:15 pm

    My favorite is “Cyber Had a Little Quill.”

    Reply
  102. sonia -  December 26, 2011 - 12:34 pm

    Could someone please name a few Spanish nursery rhymes?
    Thank you

    Reply
  103. NURSERY-RHYMES | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  December 26, 2011 - 12:26 pm

    [...] Something that we Need Find out Where we Came From — Watch out Where We’re Going Reading is a Pleasure — That helps the Mind Grow Strong Once you learn to Read you’ll understand — [...]

    Reply
  104. Jane Smoot -  December 26, 2011 - 12:19 pm

    This is interesting but I think you are leaving out some facts. I have always heard that disturbing racist and bigoted insults are hidden in nursery tales, like against Swedish people, or black people, like in Bah Bah Black Sheep? Is this true? You are a dictionary, so I count on you to tell if this is the real deal. Thank you for exposing myths and scary ideas too!

    Reply

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