On the Origin of Nursery Rhymes


Like fairy tales, nursery rhymes have darker sides too. What sounds like nonsense now is actually steeped in history. For example, Humpty Dumpty is a cannon that fell off a fort wall during the English Civil War. Apparently the only reason we think of him as an egg is because the original illustrator for Alice in Wonderland drew him that way. Who knew! Below are my favorites of the origins I uncovered.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockleshells,
And pretty maids all in a row.
Sounds lovely. I think all of the illustrations I’ve seen depict a little girl watering flowers. But no! Mary refers to Queen Mary (you know, Elizabeth I’s older sister), who waged war against Protestants. The “garden” is actually a graveyard (the original word in the rhyme) for the dead Protestants. And silver bells, cockle shells, and maids are all torture devices. Well, two torture devices and a guillotine. Not quite what you pictured, eh? An alternative interpretation for the garden line is that it’s a taunt about Mary’s barrenness. I hope nobody was stupid enough to recite it for her though. One more for the garden!

Jack and Jill
Jack and Jill went up a hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.
Anyone else laugh at Jill for falling down after Jack? Kind of reminds me of The Princess Bride, when Buttercup launches herself after Westley down that ridiculous hill. Anyway. Jack and Jill are actually Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette — you know, the monarchs who were beheaded during the French Revolution. Definitely lost their crowns then, in both senses of the word. Ouch.

Pop Goes the Weasel
Half a pound of tuppenny rice
Half a pound of treacle
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.
Up and down the City Road
In and out of the Eagle
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.
Technically, it keeps going, but this is enough to dissect for one blog post. I honestly never understood this thing, and that’s because it’s mostly slang and historical references! (Go figure.) “Pop” means “pawn,” and “weasel” means “coat.” So this guy is pawning his coat to pay for his food, a night at a music hall (the Eagle), and what have you because he doesn’t have any money. Makes me wonder why he’s wasting it on a music hall, but hey, that’s just me. I also found that “monkey” means “tankard.” So if you’re familiar with the “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel” verse, I bet it was just a weird adaptation of the original verse, where this guy pops his weasel to go out drinking. (Again, why are you wasting your money, sir?)

Baa Baa Black Sheep
Baa baa black sheep
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full.
One for the Master,
One for the Dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.
This was my brother’s favorite nursery rhyme as a kid. He’s a very frugal guy, so I find it hilarious that this rhyme is about taxes. A third goes to the king (the Master), a third goes to the church (the Dame), and a third goes to the farmer (the little boy down the lane). Originally, there was one more line: “and none for the little boy who cries down the lane.” That’s the shepherd! The shepherd has nothing but his poor little shorn sheep!

Ring Around the Rosy
Ring around the rosy,
Pocket full of posy,
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down!
I bet you know what I’m gonna say. That this rhyme is about the Black Death, and the ashes are the cremated bodies, and so on and so forth. But no! It didn’t show up until 1881. For those less historically inclined, that’s 531 years after the Black Death subsided. Not related at all. Of course, if you’re like me, you’re slightly disappointed by that information aren’t you? That’s why I like you.

There are plenty more where this came from. What’s your favorite nursery rhyme? If you don’t know the origin, I might have come across it in my prep for this post. I could tell you more than you ever wanted to know!

Or you could be lame and look it up yourself. These are the sites I drew on, but there are tons more out there.

Jennifer A. Johnson is a newly published fantasy writer thanks to The Adventure of Creation anthology. She's still revising her first novel, but you can sign up for her free newsletter to pass the time.