Who would have thought that many of our most beloved nursery rhymes sprung from dark origins? You’d think that those who wrote any material meant for the eyes and ears of young, innocent children would derive inspiration from rainbows and butterflies and other sunshiny things. But just like many fairy tales, a lot of the most popular nursery rhymes of our childhood have truly disturbing or controversial roots. Thanks to Disney though, these dark fairly tales were given more optimistic tones and more importantly, happier endings. It’s a good thing, too, because if little kids were exposed to the origins of Sleeping Beauty or Rapunzel or Snow White, the experience is bound to give them nightmares.
The same is true for nursery rhymes. Just like Disney, the authors of these nursery rhymes chose words and melodies that were catchy and pleasant enough to mask their true meaning. And luckily, kids are too focused on the tune and the rhyming pattern to know, let alone understand their favorite rhymes’ origins.
13. Humpty Dumpty
Contrary to popular belief, the person who wrote Humpty Dumpty wasn’t inspired by an egg. According to OMG Facts, Humpty isn’t even a person; it’s actually a cannon owned by the supporters of England’s King Charles I. Said cannon was used for violent means, specifically to invade the city of Colchester during the English Civil War. Humpty, or the cannon, sat on a church tower, but plummeted to the ground when it was hit by cannon balls from opposing forces and was destroyed for good. As the rhyme goes, “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, couldn’t put Humpty together again.”
12. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep
As children, we learned the sound that the sheep made was the “baa baa” of the nursery rhyme’s black sheep and it was a great learning tool. But if we were to dig deeper into history, the rhyme’s origin is not as amusing as the actual rhyme. An article on the Historic UK website describes the words as based on the significance of sheep in the English economy during medieval times. The wool trade business was a major source of income back then and King Edward I imposed exorbitant taxes and gave none of the dividends to the poor tenants. The original last two lines of the nursery rhyme were, “None for the little boy who lives down the lane,” which was supposedly in reference to the tenants.
11. Georgie Porgie
There have been many speculations of who Georgie Porgie really was, but perhaps the most accurate one is that he is Prince Regent George of England. As mentioned in an article on List Verse, the prince was notorious for being a glutton, thus associating him with “pudding and pie.” And he was also purportedly overly fond of the ladies, inspiring the lines “kissed the girls and made them cry.” He was said to have gotten involved in a boxing contest, from which he did the cowardly thing and ran away when one of the contestants died. Thus the lines, “when the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away.”
10. Goosey Goosey Gander
Who would have thought that such a cute term as “goosey goosey” actually refers to religious persecution? It’s been said, according to Huffington Post, that the nursery rhyme refers to “priest holes” or the holes that Catholic priests in 16th century England used to hide in to practice their faith, away from the accusing eyes of Anglican king Henry VIII. If the priests were caught, they were “thrown down the stairs,” which was a euphemism for imprisoned or killed.
9. London Bridge is Falling Down
Out of the many theories of this nursery rhyme’s origins, the most accepted one is that it’s about the 1014 Viking attack on London. An article on the website Mental Floss explains the details of the event, stating that London Bridge was destroyed at the hands of Olaf II of Norway when he and his troops invaded England. Another popular, though dubious theory is that the bridge’s builders believed that in order for it to remain sturdy, the structure had to be built on a foundation of child sacrifice. In other words, the children’s souls would allegedly ensure the bridge’s sturdiness.
8. Mary, Mary Quite Contrary
The name Mary is used in several adorable nursery rhymes, but in the case of Mary Quite Contrary, the person behind it is anything but amusing. The Mother Goose Club website gives a background of the catchy rhyme’s origins and it’s cringe-worthy to find out that Mary actually refers to a murderous queen: Queen Mary I of England, the Catholic monarch who persecuted Protestants for turning away from the Catholic faith. The “silver bells” and “cockle shells” supposedly symbolize the instruments of torture during the queen’s reign.
7. Three Blind Mice
Just like the nursery rhyme Mary, Mary Quite Contrary, Three Blind Mice is said to be about Queen Mary I of England or Bloody Mary, as she’s now known in history books. The website Rhymes.org further explains the hidden references. The farmer’s wife is Queen Mary, depicting the vast tracts of land she owned. And the three blind mice who “all ran after the farmer’s wife” are three Protestant noblemen who tried to overthrow her from her throne. But she didn’t “cut off their tails with a carving knife.” Rather, she had them burned at the stake.
6. Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe
It’s hard to believe that the origins of the very harmless counting rhyme that helps you in making a random choice is actually based on racism. According to the website Mental Floss, the tiger in “catch a tiger by his toe” is actually referring to the “N” word, since both words rhyme. In fact, two passengers sued Southwest airlines in 2004 because the flight stewardess used the rhyme to humorously ask passengers to take their seats, changing the second phrase to “please sit down it’s time to go.” Deemed by many as a ludicrous lawsuit, the judge sided with the airline in the end.
5. Rock-A-Bye Baby
The lyrics of Rock-A-Bye Baby are actually quite straightforward, saying that “the cradle will fall. And down will come baby, cradle and all.” It quite literally refers to a dead infant, as stated in a description in the website Smosh.com. Legend has it that the origins are rooted in colonial times, when Native Americans lulled their babies to sleep on cradles tied to tree branches. The writer took it a step too far though, by implying the deaths of the babies should they fall from the cradle.
4. Ring Around The Rosie
There’s nothing rosy about the origins of Ring Around The Rosie. As explained in Examiner, the rhyme is associated with the deadly stages of the London Plague in the 17th century and the Black Death in the 14th century. “Ring around the rosie” actually refers to the bubo, or swelling of the lymph nodes, which was a symptom of the illness. The swelling was circular (the ring) and it was dotted by a red rash at the center (the rosie). Those who fell ill gave off a very pungent smell, which was covered up with flowers. Hence the line, “a pocket full of posies.” And then finally, death took the victims, as depicted in the last line, “we all fall down.”
3. Old Mother Hubbard
The lyrics of Old Mother Hubbard are actually not child-friendly, which is strange that it’s considered a children’s nursery rhyme. An article in Education.com speaks of the rhyme’s origins and no, it’s not about a sweet little granny. Old Mother Hubbard supposedly refers to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and his botched attempt to obtain an annulment for King Henry VIII of England. The cupboard he goes to is the Catholic Church, the dog he gives a bone to is the king, and the bone is the annulment.
2. Rub a Dub Dub
The “three men in a tub” in Rub a Dub Dub makes for a strange picture, especially to a precocious child because really, what would three men be doing together in a tub? According to Huffington Post, the three men actually allude to three naked girls in a tub during a racy side show, either in a fair or a circus. The story goes that the ones watching the sideshow were the three men who were eventually depicted as the ones in the tub in the lyrics: “the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.”
1. Yankee Doodle
The term Yankee is heavily associated with Americans from the Northeastern part of the country, specifically the Yankees during the civil war and yes, even the New York Yankees. But in the nursery rhyme version, Huffington Post reports that Yankee Doodle alludes to the British mocking the Americans during the Revolutionary era. The British used the word macaroni as a term depicting the highest of fashions, but which they claimed the Americans understood wrongly. They said the Yankees would ignorantly refer to feathers in their caps as macaroni or something of high fashion. Thus, the lyrics, “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.”
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