Nursery Rhymes for Grown-Ups

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

I just love a bit of trivia, especially when it's on subject matter that I love. Like nursery rhymes, for example.

When my son Riley turned one, I threw him a nursery rhyme-inspired party. It was one of the most fun parties we've ever put together because the kids loved it lots and I think the adults loved it even more.

Just what is it about nursery rhymes? What is it that enchants us even now as we slide into middle age? Is it because they send us back to an unfettered childhood of nonsense and whimsy? Or is because they harbour a deeper meaning that stealthily and almost subconsciously links us to our forebears – to genetic knowledge from our long forgotten heritage?

When I put Riley's party together, I did a little research on the history of nursery rhymes, and it was fascinating to learn about their origins. Did you know that many rhymes came from historical events or situations? Many of the most popular nursery rhymes in our culture actually originate from British politics, and were invented as an unindictable way of spreading gossip about royalty.

Humpty Dumpty, for example, was meant to be written about King Richard III. The Three Blind Mice was supposedly an ode to Queen Mary I and Jack Sprat was purportedly King Charles I. The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe was referring to the British Empire trying to control its colonies.

I hope you enjoy this little rundown of some other nursery favourites. Some of their origins may surprise you...

Ring Around the Rosie

Ring around the Rosie
A pocket full of posies
Atishoo atishoo (ashes, ashes in the USA)
We all fall down

Originally Ring a Ring o’ Roses, this rhyme was believed to be about the black plague. Symptoms of this terrible pandemic included black circles around the eyes (ring around the rosies) and sneezing or coughing up dried blood (perhaps resembling ashes). Medieval folk believed that a pocket full of posies held curative properties against the plague and the last line of the rhyme was of course the inevitable death knell.


Three men in a tub
And who do you think they be?
The butcher, the baker
The candlestick-maker
Turn 'em out, knaves all three!

The most likely origins of this rhyme appear to be nothing more than a drunken boys’ night out. Apparently, three lay-about journeymen were out for the evening at a local side-show when they spied three beautiful young women sitting in a bath-tub. When the three enthusiastic men jumped into the bath with the girls, they were not only thrown out by the fair manager, they probably made local gossip rags. Naughty boys.

Jack Be Nimble

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack jump over the candlestick
Jack jumped over, Jack jumped over
A candlestick, a candlestick
Jump, jump, jump, Jack jump!

This one has a simple explanation. During wedding celebrations in years of yore, guests took turns leaping over a lit candle. If you knocked out the flame, you would attract a year of bad luck but if the candle remained lit, you were in for a good year.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her
Put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her, very well

Apparently, poor old Peter was an impoverished man with an unfaithful wife (he couldn’t ‘keep’ her), so he had her locked up in a chastity belt (pumpkin shell). Once locked up, he obviously kept her very well.

Baa Baa Black Sheep

Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full
One for my master, one for my dame
And one for the little boy who lives in the lane

Perhaps one of the all-time favourite nursery rhymes, this verse has a rather un-childlike origin. Baa Baa Black Sheep is said to have been written in protest against the export tax imposed in Britain in 1275. In this rhyme, the master symbolises the king.

1 comment:

Tiny Concept said...

This is classic Tania! You come up with the best conversation starters!

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