The Deep Dark Secrets of Nursery Rhymes

Last Friday night I found myself at the kitchen table doing calculus homework and finishing up a worksheet for my Probability and Statistics class. Not exactly the most desirable way to spend a Friday night, I admit, but since I currently work two consecutive 12-hour shifts every Saturday and Sunday, you can probably imagine that by Sunday night, I’m so exhausted that I barely manage to stand upright in the shower – much less worry about derivatives and regression lines.

Alas, as engaging as this may sound so far, how I spend my Friday nights is not really the point of this post.

As I sat there, wailing away at the keys on my calculator, Kristopher was listening to one of his music CDs from the living room stereo. It was a toddler compilation consisting mostly of nursery rhymes put to music. I usually require absolute silence to study, but instead of moving to another room I remained at the table. Perhaps I was either too lazy or too tired to move – I suppose the reasons aren’t that important. Anyway, the music had stopped about 15 minutes before I finished my homework, but for some reason I still had “Pat-A-Cake” stuck in my head.nursery-rhyme-signs-pat-a-cake

Pushing the songs out of mind while doing my homework had forced them into my subconscious, haunting me long after the CD had finished its rotation. This got me thinking back to something one of my high-school teachers had said about how most nursery rhymes contained hidden meanings. Her example was “Ring Around the Rosie,” supposedly about the Bubonic “Black” Plague that ravaged the population of Europe centuries ago.

Ring around the rosie,
a pocket full of posy,
Ashes, ashes,
we all fall down!

For decades, schoolchildren have repeated these cute little rhymes without knowledge of their true meanings. The Black Plague wasn’t exactly cute – seeing as it wiped out nearly a third of Europe’s population. Thus I began to search the internet for hidden meanings of nursery rhymes.


Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

Most nursery rhymes were most likely created by peasants to be used as metaphorical political or social commentary. Metaphors were used because of course there was no such thing as the freedom of speech. Most of the population was illiterate so they were made easy to remember and recite – thus the rhyming.

Like ancient epic poems, these rhymes were passed from generation to generation until their true meanings were ultimately lost by the time they actually made it to print. Anything we now know of nursery rhymes comes from interpretations by scholars of history, which are still just educated guesses.

Other interpretations are also widely accepted – most of which are Freudian in nature (relating everything to sex). The easiest target with this line of thinking is the nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill” – often interpreted as a warning against premarital sex.

Jack and Jill went up the hill,
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down,
And broke his crown;
And Jill came tumbling after.

Then up Jack got, and home did trot,
as fast as he could caper.
They put him to bed,
and plastered his head,
with vinegar and brown paper.

Regardless of their actual meaning, it doesn’t bother me that kids listen to such rhymes. It makes you wonder, though, how many “gangsta rap” songs of today will be the nursery rhymes of the future. You laugh, but it’s really not that big of a stretch. A century or two from now, very few people, if any, will actually know what a bizatch is. It’ll just be a cute word in a children’s book of rhymes. :?gangstarapcoloringbook1

The following resources are a good place to start if you’re interested in doing some more research of your own: