Do Nursery Rhymes Have Secret Meanings?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 December 2018
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Nursery rhymes are used as lullabies and children’s games, suitable for tiny tots to memorize and recite for guests. But behind the charming rhythms that make up the short poems, considerably darker and more complex origins belie the simple verse. The true meanings behind many favorite nursery rhymes may make them seem considerably creepier, yet they can provide clues to history and concepts of the natural world that delight and surprise the curious historian.

You might wonder why anyone bothered to make up the rhyme about Jack and Jill, the unbalanced water-fetching pair. Rather than mere nonsensical words, this rhyme has many possible origins and is the subject of much debate. Some experts trace the story back to a Scandinavian legend about two children kidnapped and held on the moon, where you can make out their shadows in the visible craters. In this version, when the moon “goes up the hill” or waxes, Jack is visible. Both children are visible at the full moon, whereafter Jack “fell down” and can’t be seen as the moon wanes, and Jill “came tumbling after” at the new moon.

Another, darker version suggests that the poem references the 18th century beheading of King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette. This seems inaccurate, however, as the nursery rhyme existed for centuries prior to their deaths. The curious pair are even mentioned in Shakespeare, both in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Love’s Labors Lost.


Nothing could be more charming then watching a group of children dance around while singing “Ring around the Rosie,” at least until you realize that the song may be about the Black Plague of the 17th century. While this has never been a proven origin, many experts believe that the song references the folklore remedy of carrying flowers to ward off illness, the cremation of plague victims, and the wide-spread death caused by the plague. Detractors argue that the rhyme appeared too late to be associated with the disease, but few convincing alternative origin has been suggested.

One of the bleakest of all nursery rhymes is the lyrical “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.” The poem is variously attributed to Mary I of Scotland, and Mary I of England who had similar problems. Both were barren, suggesting that asking “How does your garden grow?” is a mockery of their inability to “grow” children, or heirs to the throne. In the Mary of Scotland version, the “cockleshells” may refer to her unfaithful husband, while the “pretty maids all in a row” are her stillborn children. Some who favor the English origin suggest that the “silver bells and cockleshells” refer to the instruments of torture favored during Mary’s bloody campaigns to abolish Protestants in England.

If the depressing list of unpleasant nursery rhymes is beginning to upset you, there is at least one with a pleasant and pastoral explanation. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” an American nursery rhyme of the early 19th century, about an actual girl named Mary who actually brought her pet lamb to school, causing chaos and uproar. While this explanation may be somewhat of a let-down after the exciting commemorations of other rhymes, at least it remains literally suitable for children.


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Post 9

The story behind the pussycat nursery rhyme is also a good one, nothing weird or gruesome about it!

"Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?" was about the cat of Queen Elizabeth the First that used to run after mice in the Queen's castle.

Isn't it a cute story? I like it.

Post 8
@SarahSon -- Humpty Dumpty was a cannon used by the English Royalists in the Battle of Colchester. The wall Humpty Dumpty was sitting on was the city wall. The Parliamentarians (the English war was between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists) blew up the wall that Humpty Dumpty was on. That's why it "had a great fall."

Would you have ever guessed that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon? But that was really the name given to it! Isn't it fascinating? I can't help but laugh when I hear this nursery rhyme being taught to kids because I know it's talking about a cannon.

Post 7

I don't think that most of these secret nursery rhyme meanings are true. I think they're just theories. I cannot imagine that people would use real-life tragedies as inspiration for nursery rhymes and songs.

Except for Mary who really had a lamb, I don't believe any of the other meanings.

Post 6

I wonder if so many parents would teach these nursery rhymes to their children if they were aware of what some of their hidden meanings are.

I don't have any kids yet, but from what I have seen, most of them are pretty sharp. I can just see their little minds trying to figure out the meaning to the nonsense.

This is certainly going to make me think a lot harder about which nursery rhymes I introduce to my children.

Post 5

I am not surprised that many nursery rhymes may have some dark, mysterious meanings. The same thing goes for many of the fairy tales. Some of them can be pretty scary when you really think about it.

I find it amazing that so many generations have learned the same nursery rhymes even though some of them have such a morbid story behind them.

I was relieved to know that "Mary Had a Little Lamb" doesn't have any hidden meaning. That is probably the one that my kids loved the best.

I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that it originated in America, and somewhat later than many of the other nursery rhymes.

Post 4

One of my favorite nursery rhymes was Humpty Dumpty. I wonder what kind of secret meaning this nursery rhyme has.

Someone once told me this was really a riddle, and if so, I still haven't figured out the answer.

Post 3

I can still recite many nursery rhymes today that I learned as a child. It is funny that I never really stopped and thought about what they meant.

I just liked the way the words rhymed, and probably made up my own meaning along the way.

I think most every child born in America has some kind of mothergoose nursery rhyme book in their home. It makes you wonder if this is really a good thing or not.

Post 2

I never knew the origins of nursery rhymes. I find it interesting that there is so much morbid history tied into nursery rhymes. It seems like many classic nursery rhymes and stories were created to teach children about the dangers and tough thematic elements of the times. The repetition of the rhymes must have been a good way for the kids to remember the important lessons of the times.

Post 1

Mary of Scotland was not barren. It was her son, James, who ascended both the Scottish and the English thrones upon the death of Elizabeth I, Jane Grey and other pretenders aside.

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