Mental Floss

The Quick 10: 10 Nursery Rhyme Interpretations

Stacy Conradt
facebooktwitterreddit

If you're like me, you've probably grown up your entire life without putting much thought into the nursery rhymes drilled into your head since you could listen. But there are tales behind each of them "“ whether they're accurate or not is another story! Here are 10 of the possible meanings behind 10 classic rhymes.

LAMB
LAMB /

2. Humpty Dumpty counts at least four different origins, but the one that seems to get the most credit is the theory that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon used in the 1648 siege of Colchester during the English Civil War. People think this is so because of an additional verse that no one ever uses in the rhyme for little kids:

In Sixteen Hundred and Forty-Eight When England suffered the pains of state The Roundheads lay siege to Colchester town Where the king's men still fought for the crown There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall A gunner of deadliest aim of all From St. Mary's Tower his cannon he fired Humpty-Dumpty was its name Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...

However, it turns out that this verse was written as a joke by a professor for publication in the Oxford Magazine in 1956. The truth is, we don't have any proof that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon, although Colchester has apparently glommed on to the idea and now promotes the great Humpty Dumpty cannon as part of its tourist trade. There is evidence, however, that "humpty dumpty" was a phrase used to describe an alcoholic drink that was made of brandy boiled with ale, so perhaps it's really a nursery rhyme about the loss of booze.

3. Jack Be Nimble is kind of a mystery when you think about it. Sure, Jack might be nimble and quick, but why would he waste those skills jumping over sticks of wax? Shouldn't he be trying out for the track team or something? Well, when the rhyme popped up somewhere around 1815, jumping candlesticks was something of a superstition. If you could hop over it without putting the flame out, you were guaranteed to have good luck.

4. Ring Around the Rosie, or Ring a Ring o' Roses, is not about the plague. It wasn't even published until 1881 and the symptoms "described" in the verse don't even fit the plague. Plus, there are many different variations on the rhyme other than the one we associate with the plague "“ for instance, one version says "Ring a ring a rosie, a bottle full of posie, all the girls in our town, ring for little Josie." Snopes calls this one bunk.

JILL
JILL /

6. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep has two possible origins: a commentary on the wool tax which survived from 1275 to the 15th century, or a connection to the slave trade. Both are pretty questionable: since Baa, Baa, Black Sheep wasn't published until 1744, the rhyme would have to have been passed down orally for hundreds of years to have survived (which is possible, but questionable). The slave trade theory has been discredited by scholars, but I can offer you a cold, hard fact: "Black Sheep" and Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" were the first songs to be saved and played on a computer.

7. Little Jack Horner might be about Henry VIII dissolving the monasteries in the mid-1500s. There was man at Glastonbury Abbey named Thomas Horner who was steward to the abbot. The story goes that before the official word that the monastery would be closed was passed down, Horner went to London with the deeds hidden away inside a big Christmas pie. He ended up keeping the deed to Mells Manor himself, which is the "big plum" he pulled out. And some of that is definitely true "“ records show that Horner did take ownership of the manor during that time period. But what we don't know is if the nursery rhyme is actually referencing that particular incident.

8. Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross apparently refers to a giant cross that used to be in Banbury but was removed by the Puritans in 1602. The "fine lady" referenced has thought, at various times, to be Lady Godiva, Queen Elizabeth I or even a misinterpretation of "Fiennes." Celia Fiennes was an English woman who set off across the countryside just to see different towns and cities in a time when travelling for fun wasn't really the thing.

COLE
COLE /

10. Three Blind Mice is a pretty horrifying tale when you think about it "“ the poor, sightless mice practically get their backsides whacked off with a butcher knife. And if you consider one of the other versions that ends with "shee scrapte her tripe licke thou the knife," which indicates that she eats the poor things after torturing them, it's positively nightmare-inducing. One theory says the little ditty is based on the equally horrific deeds of Bloody Mary, AKA Queen Mary I of England. In her efforts to restore England to Catholicism, she had hundreds of people burned at the stake and otherwise tortured and maimed. This included three very prominent men "“ two bishops and an archbishop, later referred to as the Oxford Martyrs. Could this men and Bloody Mary be the inspiration behind Three Blind Mice? Some say yes.

Have you heard any interpretations that I missed? I think in most cases, the rhymes were probably just rhymes and our political brains have tried to assign meaning to them after the fact. But it's fun to speculate anyway. If you have some fuel to add to the fire, let us know in the comments.

facebooktwitterreddit