I still have just a handful of books that I still own from when I was a child. One of these is a large book of nursery rhymes that was given to me by my aunt and uncle as a Christmas present when I was just 6 months old. It’s packed with 376 rhymes; some of which I can remember by heart from being read to, eventually reading myself, and reciting time and time again. I’ll admit that many of the rhymes did not make sense to me, and if I’m being honest, still don’t. Yet there’s something about the way they were written that make them fun to say or sing. I could even go as far as saying that they sparked an early interest in, and love for, reading at a very young age for me.
From time to time my daughters and I will pull out this big old book of mine to read from. I like to give the rhymes a little extra “something” by reciting them in a British accent or by adding goofy facial expressions. Now as I read these, often nonsensical, nursery rhymes I have found myself wondering what the heck they’re talking about. You too? Well you might be as surprised as I was to find that many of these nursery rhymes were used to mock the royal and political events of the day. Many date back all the way to the 1700’s like Hey Diddle Diddle and Baa Baa Black Sheep, for example.
One of my favorite nursery rhymes has always been 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!
Without fail it brings up the image of a large “egg-man” sitting on a wall, falling, and cracking into a bunch of pieces. Well, did you know that “humpty dumpty” is a very old term that was actually used to describe someone who was fat? The rhyme itself is believed to be based on a large cannon that was used during the English Civil War in the 1600’s.
How about Ring Around the Rosy?
Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
We all fall down
What if I told you that these lyrics are actually referencing the Bubonic plague? The symptoms of the plague included a rosy red rash shaped like a ring on the skin (Ring around the rosy). Pockets and pouches were filled with sweet-smelling herbs (or posies) which were carried due to the belief that the disease was transmitted by bad smells. “Ashes, Ashes” refers to the cremation of the dead bodies! Pretty morbid right?
Even though many of these beloved children’s rhymes don’t seem as though they were initially intended for children at all, I still believe they are a great learning tool for children. Despite their secret history, the truth is that they teach children how language works, are fun to recite, and preserve a culture that spans for generations. I think I’ll just go ahead and keep the history of some nursery rhymes a secret while reciting them to my kids though!