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The Actual, True Meanings Of Classic Nursery Rhymes

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We recited them as little kids. Parents tell them to their children. They’re even used as the titles for every single James Patterson mystery novel. But do we really know what we’ve actually been saying all those years?


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


A quick reading of the rhyme above shows at no point does it ever mention that Humpty Dumpty is an egg. Some believe that’s because “humpty dumpty” was actually a new type of cannon used in the English Civil War, only to shatter when first lit. Others, however, believe the term refers to a type of brandy or a clumsy person, which together gives you “fall down drunk.” Of course, the fact that horses would be called upon to solder a military weapon back together or perform surgery on a problem drinker’s shattered spine tells us all we really need to know about Old England’s vocational and medical schools’ lax admissions policies.


Jack and Jill


Jack and Jill went up the hill/To fetch a pail of water/Jack fell down and broke his crown/And Jill came tumbling after


Why would anyone go up a hill for water when water travels downhill…unless this really isn’t a tale of liquid refreshment and unsure footing. One common interpretation is that it’s about the beheading of King Louis XVI (“lost his crown”) and his queen Marie Antoinette (“who came tumbling after”) during the French Revolution. But the small town of Kilmersdon, England proudly claims (to the point they make it a tourist attraction) that the poem is about a couple in 1697 who used to sneak up the hill for some alone time (making “fetch a pail of water” one of the more disturbing euphemisms for “sex”). The story goes that the woman got pregnant, the man died from a falling rock, and then the woman died in childbirth, thus resulting in one of the most depressing nursery rhymes ever since “I Shot Little Jack Horner Just to Watch Him Die.”


Rock-a-Bye Baby


Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetops/When the wind blows, the cradle will rock/When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall/And down will come baby, cradle and all.


Unlike other rhymes whose sinister undertones only become apparent with research, “Rock-a-Bye baby” boldly states “dead infant” right at the get-go. So how did this high-octane nightmare fuel of a ditty come about? The leading theory is it hails from early U.S. settlers who reported how Native Americans often rocked their babies in cradles suspended from tree branches, allowing the wind to gently sway them to sleep (or a gust to hurl them into oblivion). A competing take is that it’s actually about birth, with the tree as the mother, the wind as her contractions, the bough as her water breaking, and the “cradle and all” as the placenta. That would not only make it a poem about life instead of death, but would also give it all the soothing bedtime story qualities of a child imagining his own head crowning from his mommy’s nether regions.


London Bridge Is Falling Down


London Bridge is falling down/Falling down, falling down/London Bridge is falling down/My fair lady.


Very few examples of colossal structure damage lend themselves to toe-tapping rhymes or kindergarten playtime activities. But so it is with this poem about the destruction of London Bridge courtesy of Viking attack (as told in the competing Norse poem, “Pillage, Plunder, Prevent Foot Traffic”). Or it’s about the once-held belief that children were buried alive in the bridge’s foundation as a human sacrifice to what one could only assume were very specific water-spanning gods. Or it’s about how the bridge just naturally deteriorated over time, making the poem about as exciting as the nursery rhyme “Let’s Watch that Cheese Slowly Rot in the Hot Sun.”


Ring Around the Rosie


Ring around the rosie/A pocketful of posies/Ashes, ashes/We all fall down!


It’s long been thought this poem was about England’s Great Plague (which was truly awesome in the worst way possible). The rosy ring supposedly refered to the plague’s rash. The pocket of posies are the herbs people carried to dispel the disease’s smell. And the ashes were a nod to the cremation of the plague’s victims in yet another example that every nursery rhyme is actually a way bringing up death to a three-year-old. But “Nursery Rhyme Experts” (an admittedly low-paying profession) say the rhyme came out long after the plague and the symptoms mentioned in it do not match those of the illness. And so this poem may in truth simply be about endless twirling, a popular pastime in the Middle Ages given that there was no internet, widespread literacy or any other reason to get out of bed except to toil and die.


Little Miss Muffet


Little Miss Muffet/Sat on a tuffet,/Eating her curds and whey/Along came a spider/Who sat down beside her/And frightened Miss Muffet away


Girl eats cottage cheese. Girl loses her freaking mind upon seeing a bug. The sale of tuffets (footstools) plummets across Europe. Seriously, not every one of these things lends itself to deeper meaning.

Do you know the true meanings behind any nursery rhymes? Let us know in the comments!

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