For centuries, nursery rhymes have been enjoyed by kids all over the world and are passed on from one generation to the other. These catchy nursery rhymes with nonsensical and innocent exteriors actually have hidden meanings. Some are based on historical events, greed, cruelty, religious persecution, violence, immorality and sickness. Continue reading as we explore the deeper meanings of the rhymes and songs we recite to and with kids to occupy, soothe, and lull them to sleep.
1. Ring Around the Rosy
Children hold hands, recite the verse while skipping, walking or hopping in a circular direction. As they say the last line “We all fall down,” they fall to the ground. This seems so innocent and just plain old fun but the time that this rhyme speaks of was no fun at all. According to experts, this poem is linked to the Great Plague of London in 1665. This was the final major epidemic of the bubonic plague that claimed the lives of millions in England. The “ring” speaks to the ring-like red rash that appeared on the skin and ashes and falling down symbolize people succumbing to the disease.
2. There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe
This nursery rhyme has several meanings. The literal one speaks to domestic violence and abuse of children. Historians have explained that this rhyme dates back to eighteenth-century England and speaks about parliament. A map of Great Britain turned at ninety degrees clockwise looks like a shoe. The children were England’s colonies at the time and the manner in which they were treated. Some historians also believe that the old woman refers to King George II because his enemies called him an old woman after he started wearing white wigs. The children were the members of parliament who faced his wrath.
3. Three Blind Mice
This children’s rhyme purportedly recounts a sinister story about Catholics persecuting Protestants under Mary I’s rule. She ruled England as queen from 1553 to 1558. The “Three Blind Mice” of the nursery tale are supposedly three Anglican bishops known as the Oxford Martyrs who were charged with blindly upholding their protestant principles. They were executed at the stake by Mary for heresy. The mice’s blindness may possibly be explained by the fact that people were typically blindfolded before being executed.
4. Baa Baa Black Sheep
Scholars agree that this nursery rhyme originated in England in 1275 when The Great Custom was introduced. This was a tax that was paid on wool. The price of a bag of wool had to be divided in three according to the Great Custom, with one portion going to the king, one to the church, and one to the farmer. According to the original version of this rhyme, there was nothing left for the little shepherd who lives down the lane. After paying for the tax, the sheep farmers had nothing left for themselves, most likely because the king and the church took more than they were supposed to.
5. Pop Goes the Weasel
Pop Goes the Weasel started as a dance tune in London and it later became a nursery rhyme. The nursery rhyme is believed to be alluding to the practice of pawning a coat in order to earn money for food when people were really poor. It is believed that Cockney, the rhyming slang, is used in this rhyme. In the east end of Victorian London, people frequently utilized this speech pattern to conceal their true intentions. Weasel meant coat and pop meant pawning one’s possessions.
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