January 22, 2014

The Twisted Origin of 10 Popular Nursery Rhymes.

Opal bee bopped around the house, bellowing, Georgie Porgie Puddin’ and Pie, Kissed the girls and made them cry. When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away!

She has numerous nursery rhymes memorized by now and recites them unconsciously as she pedals through her world.

Adorable, yes. But that day I couldn’t help but to wonder who the hell is Georgie Porgie, anyway?

So, that evening, glass of wine in-hand, I decided to do a little digging. What I discovered about the origin of Georgie blew me away.

And as I got deeper into my investigation, it became apparent that there are endless theories stating so many of the most well-known—”classic”—nursery rhymes are rooted in sinister, gruesome, or at least overtly serious, themes.

Let’s start with Georgie, and work our way down the line.

1.  Georgie Porgie.

Georgie Porgie, Puddin’ and Pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry,
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away
I assumed Georgie Peorgie was just another little boy who smelled of deli meat and chased girls during recess. The same boy who’d avoid the bigger boys and the weggies and noggins they would dish out.
Nope. Turns out some say Georgie Porgie was about a gay sex scandal in the court of King Charles II.
Georgie Porgie is thought to be a caricature of George Villiers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham, who chose to woo King Charles I. Through the king, Villiers was able to become very powerful and influential, and was even knighted as a—this is true—Gentleman of the Bedchamber.
I won’t tell Opal.

2.  Ring Around the Rosy.  

Ring-a-round the rosy,
A pocket full of posy,
Ashes! Ashes!

We all fall down

A song loved by sweet little girls in sundresses everywhere. They sing and dance in a circle until the end when they all fall down in a heap of giggles. An image not at all congruous with the perceived historical origin of the song: the Bubonic Plague.
Apparently the symptoms of the plague included a rosy red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin (ring around the rosy). People filled their pockets with sweet smelling herbs (or posies) due to the belief that the disease was transmitted by bad smells. The term ashes ashes refers to the cremation of the dead bodies.
My heavens.

3.  Rock-a-Bye-Baby.

Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Though this one comes off as haunting without the need for any historical context, these lyrics are said to reflect the observations of a young pilgrim boy who had seen Native Indian mothers suspend a birch bark cradle from the branches of a tree. Thus enabling the wind to rock the cradle and the child to sleep.
Rock-a-bye baby in the tree top.

Egads. Not exactly the image I want to plant in my little one’s head as she is drifting off to sleep. Sweet dreams, sweetie—don’t’ forget to wear your helmet.

4.  Humpty Dumpty

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!

Here is an example of one in which my interpretation was, thankfully, much worse than the actual meaning. For me, this one symbolizes a devastating scene of that which is entirely unfixable.

And even though Humpty Dumpty was a colloquial term used in fifteenth century England to describe an obese person, that’s not what experts say it’s describing in this particular rhyme. Humpty Dumpty was actually believed to be a large cannon used in the Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, belonging to the Royalists. When it “took a great fall” from the wall, it broke and could not be fixed, thus causing the Royalists to be forced to lay down their arms.
In spite of being pleased to discover this rhyme is not about an obese man who jumped from a wall to his demise, I still find it to be a bit serious for a kid’s ditty.

5.  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.

Pretty straightforward, though there is some speculation about the “Little boy who lives down the lane” being a reference to the slave trade. Apparently there was an attempt to reform any non-politically correct nursery rhymes in the 1980’s, and this was one on the list. But any reformation was not lasting.

6. Jack and Jill.

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.

I can remember loving this one for the same reason I loved Ring Around the Rosy—it had a familiar choreography that went alongside the lyrics; it was a full-participation rhyme.

While we chanted:
Jack and Jill ran up the hill to fetch a pail of water—
we ran as fast as we could up whatever slight incline we could find.
Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after— we would roll down the same hill and wind up in a silly mound at the end of the lyric and the bottom of the hill.

But with the slightest investigation, I learned that the most popular theory is that Jack and Jill came from an oh-so gruesome historical event that someone somewhere deemed appropriate for an upbeat children’s jingle.
Jack and Jill are said to be King Louis XVI —Jack —who was beheaded (lost his crown) followed by his Queen Marie Antoinette —Jill —(who came tumbling after).

I am so thankful Opal has never asked me what this one means—or any of them, for that matter. But I think I should probably start wrangling up some of my own definitions. The last thing I want is for that inevitable moment to catch me off guard, forcing me to wind up blurting, “It’s about a king and queen who got their heads cut off! Ok?!”

7. Mary Mary Quite Contrary.

 (It only gets worse.)


Mary Mary quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells

And pretty maids all in a row.

This traditional English rhyme is said to feature Mary Tudor as ‘Mary’. A Catholic with her fierce and volatile temper, she persecuted and exterminated all those who adhered to the Protestant faith. The gardens in the rhyme were said to represent graveyards. Silver bells and cockle shells were representative of instruments of torture (much like those used to lash Jesus during the Crucifixion). They would crush the victim against a hard surface by screwing the silver bells into their fingers. Then, they would get the cockle shells and attach them to the victim’s genitals.

The ‘maids’ was a shortened name for maidens, a beheading device fraught with issues. It often took many, many whacks of the large blade to behead the victim. In the meantime, the victim would try to run off, bleeding profusely from their injuries.

You have got to be kidding me.

Yes, honey, silver bells and cockle shells are indeed something to hang from the tree…

8.  Three Blind Mice.

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 thing in your life,

As three blind mice?

Now, this one sounds mighty gruesome from the get-go.

But, according to many, the farmer’s wife in the poem alludes to the 16th Century Queen “Bloody” Mary, and her enthusiasm for everything involving torture and death (see Mary, Mary Quite Contrary). The three mice are said to represent three noblemen who got together to try to conspire against the queen and were consequently prosecuted by being burned at the stake.

We don’t really say this one in our house, anyway. And probably never will.

9.  Goosey Goosey Gander.

Goosey Goosey Gander, whither shall I wander?

Upstairs and downstairs and in my Lady’s chamber.

There I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers,

So I took him by his left leg and threw him down the stairs.

This is another one that sounds pretty macabre without having to do much interpreting. Another one we’ll not be reciting in the Grimes’ household.

This one is said to be about…wait for it…execution. Quite a common theme in children’s rhymes, I am finding.

Back in 16th century Europe, most people were busy either fighting off plagues or killing off Catholics. Priests especially were in high demand as there was a reward for the Protestant who was able to find and execute one. The method of execution was often tying him by the legs and throwing him down a flight of stairs (thus the last line in the rhyme). Thus, they had to seclude themselves in tiny closet-like rooms (lady’s chambers) where they would secretly say these ritualistic prayers for fear that Protestants would execute them.

As a side note, the term ‘goosey’ was another way of referring to someone as a slut. In fact, the term “goose bumps” was originally slang for the red bumps caused by venereal diseases.

10. Pop Goes the Weasel.

All around the mulberry bush

The monkey chased the weasel;

The monkey thought ’twas all in good sport

Pop! goes the weasel.

A penny for a spool of thread,

A penny for a needle-

That’s the way the money goes,

Pop! goes the weasel.

A well-known interpretation of this one is that it’s a poem made up of words that are Cockney slang terms from hundreds of years ago. ‘Pop is a slang term meaning to pawn something while ‘weasel’ translates to ‘coat’.

The idea was that no matter how poor a London man was back in the day, he was expected to own a suit in order to dress nicely on Sunday. The trick to being able to do this was to pawn your suit (“Pop goes the weasel”) on Monday and then purchase it back before Sunday.



What we have here are nursery rhymes (in theory) about a gay sex scandal, the bubonic plague, kids hanging from trees, the war, the slave trade, beheadings and other forms of execution, torture, and poverty.

The main thing that comes to my mind is why? These are topics for the newspaper, or perhaps a late-night, grown-up conversation over homemade gin (what did people drink in the 1700 and 1800’s?), but for Nursery Rhymes?  Those poor children—were their parents that incapable of thinking up anything better?

With this in mind, I have certainly gained some perspective on my nit-picky stance around the Disney Princesses, poorly written Dora books, and the intentional grammar flubs of Sesame Street characters (Me want Cookies!).

One cannot argue that any current imperfection in children’s literature pales in comparison to themes of torture and dismemberment.

Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!


Editor: Bryonie Wise


Read 1 Comment and Reply

Read 1 comment and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Heather Grimes  |  Contribution: 11,600