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Behind the Rhyme

Most likely some of your earliest memories are of listening to your parents, grandparents, and teachers recite funny little rhymes in a sing-song voice — and you would memorize and repeat them with your friends. And you in turn probably taught your own children the very same silly rhymes, in the very same sing-song voice. And most likely, you still haven’t given much thought to the actual words you’re repeating. But if you have, you probably reached the conclusion they are just complete nonsense.

Nursery rhymes may sound nonsensical, but many of them are thinly disguised parodies of actual people and events in history. The verses were used because it was dangerous to explicitly criticize the government or public figures. Many nursery rhymes are dark, such as Ring Around the Rosie, which was actually about the Black Death, or Jack and Jill, whose backstory was the beheadings of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Other nursery rhymes have a moral or try to teach a lesson, such as Little Bo Peep, who was careless and suffered the consequences of losing her sheep.

Here’s an unsettling look at some of your other favorite nursery rhymes and the meaning behind the words you know and used to love:

  • Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary was not about a girl who loved to garden. It was about England’s Queen Mary, also known as Bloody Mary. She was Catholic and had hundreds of Protestants executed. Silver bells and cockle shells were not garden flowers or ornaments — they were torture devices of the era.
  • Old Mother Hubbard is thought to be a parody of Cardinal Wolsey. He refused to grant King Henry VIII’s divorce from Anne Boleyn, which quickly led to his political downfall.
  • Rock-a-Bye-Baby didn’t start as a lullaby. It is believed to be about the son of English King James II. According to many, the child was not a royal heir, but a baby passed off as such to ensure a Catholic heir to the throne.
  • Humpty Dumpty was not a tragic story about a cracked egg. Humpty was a large cannon that sat on a wall in Colchester, England. During the English Civil War, the cannon was hit by enemy cannon fire. Humpty had a great fall and was never put back together again.

Now you know some of the stories behind the beloved rhymes of your childhood. But just as children outgrow Santa on their own schedule, there’s no need to spoil your children’s enjoyment of their favorite nursery rhymes until they experience a bit more of the real world.

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