10 Interpretations of Popular Nursery Rhymes

Some of the possible interpretations for these tales go back to real-life historical figures—and others are a little dark.
Mary and her little lamb, Humpty Dumpty mid-fall, and Little Jack Horner.
Mary and her little lamb, Humpty Dumpty mid-fall, and Little Jack Horner. / Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images (Mary), Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images (Humpty Dumpty), Jennifer Kennard/Corbis via Getty Images (Little Jack Horner)

You’ve probably grown up your entire life without putting much thought into the origins of the nursery rhymes drilled into your head. There are tales behind each of them—some involving real-life historical figures, others that supposedly have very dark meanings—but whether they’re accurate or not is another story. Here are some of the possible meanings behind 10 classic rhymes.

“Mary Had a Little Lamb”

An illustration of Mary and Her Little Lamb is pictured
Mary and her famous lamb. / Michael Nicholson/GettyImages

“Mary had a little lamb,   
Its fleece was white as snow.
And everywhere that Mary went,
The lamb was sure to go.
He followed her to school one day,   
That was against the rule.
It made the children laugh and play   
To see a lamb at school.”

“Mary Had a Little Lamb” was inspired by a little girl named Mary Sawyer who—yes, you guessed it—owned a pet lamb. Her brother, being mischievous as most brothers are, suggested that she take the lamb to school with her one day. How the poem came about (it was a poem before it became a song and a nursery rhyme) is debated. As an adult, Mary recalled that a young man named John Roulstone was visiting the classroom that day with his uncle. He witnessed the entire lamb incident and thought it was so funny that he wrote Mary a little poem and gave it to her the next day. The first time it was published, though, it was credited to Sarah Josepha Hale (a.k.a. the ”Mother of Thanksgiving”). Some people think the first half of the poem was written as Mary Sawyer suggested, and Sarah Hale added the rest when she published Poems for Our Children in 1830. Others say that there’s no evidence for Mary’s version of the tale’s authorship.

“Humpty Dumpty”

Humpty Dumpty is pictured
"Watch me go sit on this wall." / Culture Club/GettyImages

“Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

“Humpty Dumpty” counts at least four different origins, including 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...”

But 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 apparently promoted 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.

“Jack Be Nimble”

Jack Be Nimble is pictured
Jack launches himself several inches into the air. / Culture Club/GettyImages

“Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jump over the candlestick.”

“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? According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, when the rhyme popped up somewhere around 1815, jumping candlesticks was something of a superstition. It was said that if you could hop over it without putting the flame out, you were guaranteed to have good luck. But that’s not the only theory about the rhyme: Some think it might be based on the exploits of the pirate Black Jack Smatt.

“Ring Around the Rosie”

Ring Around the Rosie is pictured
Ring Around the Roosevelt, a lesser-known version of the rhyme. / Historical/GettyImages

“Ring around the rosie,
A pocket full of posies.
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down!”

Contrary to one theory, “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.”

It’s far more likely that the rhyme originated during the 19th century, when Protestant dogma frowned upon dancing. To circumvent the restriction, kids took to having play parties that featured pseudo-dance moves and rhymes without musical accompaniment.

“Jack and Jill”

Jack and Jill are pictured
Good job, kids. / Print Collector/GettyImages

“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.”

“Jack and Jill” has so many interpretations, it’s hard to pick just one. There’s a theory that says “Jack” and “Gill” are units of measurement—a half-pint and a quarter-pint, respectively—and that King Charles I tried to change the taxes on liquid measures so that people would receive less but be taxed the same. Another interpretation suggests that Jack and Jill actually represent the beheadings of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in the French Revolution because of the line “Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.” But it no longer works once you recite the second verse to the rhyme. Louis XVI definitely did not get up and trot home “as fast as he could caper; and went to bed to mend his head with vinegar and brown paper.”

“Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”

Baa Baa Black Sheep is pictured
"You shall not pass." / Culture Club/GettyImages

“Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full;
One for the master,
And one for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.”

According to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep,” first published around 1744, one possible explanation is that this rhyme is commentary on a wool tax imposed in 1275. More recently, some have suggested that the nursery rhyme is actually a reference to the slave trade, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support that theory.

“Little Jack Horner”

Little Jack Horner is pictured
Little Jack Horner on a typical day. / Jennifer Kennard/GettyImages

“Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, ‘What a good boy am I!’”

According to one rumor, “Little Jack Horner” is about Henry VIII dissolving the monasteries in the mid-1500s. There was a 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 supposedly the “big plum” he pulled out. And some of that is definitely true: Records show that someone in the Horner family did take ownership of the manor—but it was a few years after it was seized. Experts don’t believe there’s evidence to connect the nursery rhyme’s origin to these events.

“Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross”

Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross is pictured
Making the trek to Banbury Cross. / Culture Club/GettyImages

“Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
And she shall have music wherever she goes.”

“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 been 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 traveling for fun wasn’t really the thing.

“Old King Cole”

King Cole is pictured
King Cole takes in some live entertainment. / Historical/GettyImages

“Old King Cole was a merry old soul,
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl,
And he called for his fiddlers three.”

Colchester has another nursery rhyme claim, maybe: “Old King Cole.” That particular “merry old soul” could be based on a King Cole who lived in Colchester in the 3rd century. Some think Colchester is interpreted as “Cole’s Castle” even though most historians will tell you the Col- part of the name is derived from the River Colne. Merry Old Soul candidate number two is King Cole of Northern Britain who lived sometime around 400 CE. Considering that our first recorded instance of “Old King Cole” doesn’t occur until 1708, this is a rhyme that would have had to survive orally for more than 1000 years.

“Three Blind Mice”

Queen Mary I is pictured
Queen Mary I. / Fine Art/GettyImages

“Three blind mice.
Three blind mice.
See how they run.
See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer's wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife.
Did you ever see such a sight in your life
As three blind mice?”

“Three Blind Mice” is a pretty horrifying tale: 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, a.k.a. 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 these men and Bloody Mary be the inspiration behind Three Blind Mice? Some say “yes.”

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