Nursery Rhymes Revisited

It’s Never Too Late to Have a Scary Childhood

Have a Great Fall!

Most people don't think about the origins of our nursery rhymes, but it turns out that a lot of them have pretty interesting—or even gruesome—histories.

Mary had a Little Lamb” was based on a true story: In 1816, Mary Sawyer of Sterling, Massachusetts, had her pet lamb follow her to school. Mary had raised the lamb from infancy, when its mother rejected it. It followed her all over and would come when called. Her brother suggested they bring it to school, and so they did. When the teacher caught them, Mary didn't get in trouble. The teacher just laughed and had them take it home at lunch. A poet witnessed the event and, well, the rest is history.

We commonly think that “Ring around the Rosie” is about the Black Death. “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down” suddenly seems a lot darker in that light. Most scholars, however, disagree, though the Black Death explanation is unlikely to vanish any time soon, given how well it captures the imagination.

Jack and Jill” is thought to come from King Charles I of England's attempt to reform a tax on liquid goods. Parliament rejected the measure, leading King Charles to lower the volume of a pint, leading to smaller half- and quarter-pints, known respectively as “jacks” and “gills.”

London Bridge is Falling Down” could refer to a Viking attack in 1014 AD that destroyed the bridge, a child sacrifice (probably not, though it's certainly sensational), or just that bridge’s continual state of poor repair through most of history.

There are claims scrambled about that “Humpty Dumpty” refers to a cannon that fell off a city wall, but it's probably just an invented riddle.

We tend to think that “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” refers either to Mary, Queen of Scots or to Queen Mary I of England. Mary I is the more gruesome version. She’s also known as Bloody Mary for her execution of hundreds of Protestants, and the metaphors that we can read into it are pretty grim.

Pop! Goes the Weasel” is probably just nonsense, though not for the weasel.



Yard Ramp Guy, sir—Impressive stuff here:

“I almost had a psychic girlfriend but she left me before we met.”

— Stephen Wright

Posted in Culture.