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The sing-song rhymes that have helped generations of children drift off to sleep have hidden meanings that describe the stuff of nightmares. Writer Matthew Hindley decodes these childhood staples.
Text by: Matthew Hindley
Country: England

emember being a kid?

You woke early and ran into your mum and dad’s bedroom to spend 10 minutes jumping up and down on top of Daddy’s tummy. You had a quick breakfast and spent the rest of the morning assembling, disassembling and reassembling your Mr. Potato Head. Lunch and then a spin on the tricycle Granddad brought you for Christmas. After dinner, a bit more time with Mr. Potato Head, and then it was time for bed.

You lay in bed smelling faintly of lavender, happy and drowsy after a warm bath. Wearing your favourite “Toy Story” pajamas and tucked in under your bedclothes, the nursery rhyme began:

Ring a ring of roses,
A pocket full of posies
Atishoo
Atishoo
We all fall down!

That horrible image of a young child’s face covered in a blotchy, red, bloody rash. The child’s mother clutching a bouquet of white lilies to her chest, weeping. The poor child sneezing uncontrollably until she stumbles a few steps forward and collapses to the ground, killed by the great plague of London in 1665.

Hopefully you don’t remember it that way.

Many nursery rhymes have been around for hundreds of years, kept alive by generations of parents retelling them to their children. Put to a nice tune without much thought, they sound very nice, but when you look at them a bit more closely, many have a more sinister side.

As with most pieces of literature, a rhyme can be interpreted however you want. Only the author knows its true meaning — if there is one.

Lewis Carroll’s version of the character Humpty Dumpty said in “Through the Looking-Glass”: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”. But did Humpty Dumpty start as an egg?

Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again!

Firstly, the original rhyme has absolutely nothing to do with an egg. The egg analogy came from “Through the Looking-Glass” when the principal character, Alice, says, “And how exactly like an egg is he?” when looking up at Humpty Dumpty.

To find out who Humpty Dumpty really was, go back to the warm summer of 1648 in Colchester, England. The English Civil War had been tearing up the country for six long years, and battle-weary soldiers who supported King Charles I were forced to retreat behind the walls of Colchester for protection.

On top of the highest church tower in the city was perched a large, Culverin-type cannon called Humpty Dumpty. From the cannon’s location, soldiers could see rebel attacks and respond before the enemy could gain any significant advantage. The rebels sought to counter this threat and aimed a barrage of their own cannon fire at the base of the church tower. Their plan worked. Down came the cannon, Humpty Dumpty, and the soldiers all watched in dismay as the huge and powerful weapon sunk into the marshes below.

The king’s men, using a troop of horses, tried in vain to drag the cannon out of the mud for hours until they were finally forced to admit defeat. They simply could not put Humpty Dumpty together again.

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 none for the little boy
Who cries down the lane.

As long as there have been taxes, there have been people who have borne an unfair burden. In the case of the nursery rhyme “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, shepherds were targeted by a wool tax from 13th century England’s King Edward I.

Edward needed a lot of money to pay for various conflicts throughout his time as king, starting with The Crusades and ending with tiresome wars against Wales and Scotland until his death in 1307. To pay for these wars, Edward set up a rather hefty tax law that was specifically aimed at shepherds and the wool they produced.

In “Baa Baa Black Sheep”, we see that the 13th century shepherd admits that he does have some wool that he can sell, three rather large bags of it, in fact. But, there is a catch. Of the three bags that he owns, one has to go to The Master (the King for his wars), another goes to The Dame (the Church, in order to save his soul), and his profit is the third bag. That rather harsh 66.6% tax rate would get most people writing a protest song about it. The poor shepherd boy is hardest hit, though, as he gets nothing for his hard work!

The black sheep is also significant. Since biblical times, a sheep with a black fleece has been seen as bad luck. A farmer would not have been able to sell a black fleece because it could not be dyed.

Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row

Those ideas of a quaint English garden in the springtime are very wrong. Rather, the rhyme describes a graveyard, torture devices and a rather crazy, anti-Protestant queen who shouted “Off with your head!” quite a lot.

Mary I, also known by the nickname “Bloody Mary”, was queen of England from 1553 until 1558. When she came to the throne, she returned England to Catholicism, contrary to the wishes of many of her subjects. Her father, Henry VIII, had invented his own church to be able to divorce and behead any wives he didn’t want (which included Mary’s mother, Catherine of Aragon).

She started a systematic sweep of the whole of England, hunting for all Protestants and their sympathisers. Many people were tortured (silver bells and cockle shells were names for rather painful torture devices), and anybody who spoke against her and Catholicism were killed by a type of guillotine that in Mary’s day was called a maiden, or maid. The garden of the poem is thought to be referring to a graveyard where they buried the people who spoke out against Mary.

Pop Goes the Weasel

Half a pound of tupenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel
.

Up and down the City road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop goes the weasel.

Every night when I go out
the monkey’s on the table.
Take a stick and knock it off
Pop goes the weasel.

A penny for a ball of thread
Another for a needle,
That’s the way the money goes,
pop goes the weasel.

“Pop Goes the Weasel” started in 1850s England, where it was the name of a popular dance where people would shout “pop goes the weasel” at various intervals.

The Victorians then gave the tune some words, but the meaning is certainly not very clear. The most likely of the explanations is that the rhyme is about poverty that uses plays on words in cockney rhyming slang, a variant of English used by people from the East End of London.

The first two lines of each verse talk about a way that the person is spending their money. For example, he spends money on cheap food (tuppenny rice and treacle), going to the pub (the Eagle is a pub on the City road in London) and on alcohol (a monkey is a pint glass and a stick is a shot of alcohol).

The word “pop” means to pawn something, and “weasel” comes from “weasel and stoat”, which is “coat” in cockney. Therefore to “pop your weasel” is to pawn your coat.

In the late 19th century, Sunday church clothes were usually the most expensive items owned by a working class man. Therefore the rhyme is talking about someone who pawns his coat during the week to be able to afford to go out to the pub and drink.

Sing a Song of Sixpence

Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye;
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing;
Oh, wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey.
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.

Once again a nursery rhyme that is at first glance not so obvious — this one tells of pirates, secret codes and a lot of gold.

Blackbeard was an early 18th century pirate wanted by many colonial nations for menacing ships around the Caribbean. His notoriety led to a code being used whenever his men were looking for new recruits. Song of sixpence refers to a promise of a decent wage, and a pocket full of rye relates to a leather pouch containing about a litre of alcohol.

Blackbeard’s tactics for capturing ships were to lure them close by pretending to be a ship in distress. When the target was close enough 24 of his best pirates (four and twenty blackbirds) would attack the ship screaming and shouting (the birds began to sing).

The king is Blackbeard himself who is obviously happy with his captured prize and counts out the loot after the attack is over. The queen is Blackbeard’s ship (The Queen Anne’s Revenge), and bread and honey is a reference to when a ship is being resupplied.

The maid was in the garden is a target ship they intended to capture, and the garden was how people referred to the Caribbean, a fertile hunting ground for any pirate. When a ship is hanging out the clothes, it means it is about to set sail.

The rhyme ends with Blackbeard boasting about how he was able to operate under the very noses of many of the people who were hunting him.

You’d probably rather think of an oversized egg hurtling down toward the Earth than a 2,000 kilogram cannon, or a slightly contradictory lady called Mary rambling on about her garden than a man screaming in pain after half an hour with the cockle shells.

Nursery rhymes are enjoyable parts of our history. They help to keep the past alive and only for a special few help to pass on the hidden secrets that are kept within.

Night-night, and sweet dreams.



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The Dark Side of Nursery Rhymes

Do you remember when you were little? You play with your toys all day and after a warm bath your parents tuck you in to bed and sing you a nursery rhyme.

We learn nursery rhymes from our parents and friends, just like they heard them from their parents when they were children. And we will probably sing our children nursery rhymes as well.

Nursery rhymes are usually silly, happy verses set to a tune. Or at least they seem silly and happy. But in reality they have very different meanings than what you first imagine. They can actually be very dark.

For example the story of “Humpty Dumpty” that we all associate with an egg falling off a wall is actually about a large cannon shot down from a tower during the English Civil War.

“Baa Baa Black Sheep” is about paying taxes and “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” is about Mary Queen of Scots and her persecution of Protestants.

The true meanings of nursery rhymes are not obvious and we so we prefer to think of the silly meanings such as a large egg falling and breaking and a lady called Mary talking about her garden than what they really are about.

 

Comprehension

Below you will find text comprehension questions. Read and listen to the text and answer the questions (we recommend you read first and then listen).

The Dark Side of Nursery Rhyme

Quiz

 

Grammar in Use

Below you will find PDF documents with the Grammar in Use.

Elementary: Describing Marital Status

Advanced: Idiom: Cut to the Chase

Vocabulary

The Dark Side of Nursery Rhymes

Summary Vocabulary

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