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The Horrible Meanings Behind Nursery Rhymes

Sunday, August 14, 2011 11:40 PM Comments (57)

My wife went out to a shower today. I’m still not even sure if it was a baby shower or a wedding shower. I don’t really ask a lot of questions. All I know is she got dressed up and left me home with the five kids.

It was raining so me, being Super Dad, picked out a large book of nursery rhymes from our bookshelf to read to the four-year-old. I asked my six-year-old son if he wanted to listen and he looked at me like I had three or maybe four heads that were each speaking Portuguese in Pig Latin.

OK. I’ll take that as a no. I’m perceptive like that.

I started with Humpty Dumpty, the epic tale of an unfortunate egg. My eight-year-old daughter, sitting nearby, interrupted by asking “What’s the deal with Humpty Dumpty?”

She asked why, if you were an egg, would you sit on a wall in the first place. Doesn’t that seem like a silly thing for an egg to do? My nine-year-old daughter added that she wouldn’t sit on a wall and she was human which is a lot more difficult to break than an egg.

The eight-year-old wondered who puts horses in charge of putting eggs back together anyway. No wonder they couldn’t put him together.

So with my eight- and nine-year-olds in tow I announced that we would look it up on the internet. The four-year-old sat on my lap and the other two crowded around. My 11-year-old was too cool to come over and the boy continued playing video games.

It turns out that, according to several internet sites (and who disbelieves the internet?) Humpty Dumpty was a name for a cannon protecting a fort which fell. While the men attempted to lift the cannon again, they were being slaughtered and finally they surrendered because they couldn’t get the cannon working.

This, my children thought was cool. In fact, talk of a cannon and war enticed the boy to come over. Awww. It was a nice family moment predicated on the slaughter of men attempting to raise a cannon to blow their opponents into little bitty opponent pieces. Hey, I’ll take my nice moments where I can get them.

So while we were online we decided to look up some of stories behind some other favorite nursery rhymes on the internet. That was a big mistake because it turns out that reading nursery rhymes to kids is like singing them a Black Sabbath song without all of Ozzy’s talent.

1) The Little Old Lady who Lived in a Shoe - Yeah, well now I know why she lives in a shoe. It’s because she’s beating her kids to death and she doesn’t want them getting to child services to report her.

Everyone knows the beginning that says, “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.” But it continues that “She gave them some broth without any bread; Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.”

Some versions have her going coffin shopping after said beatings.

So she’s starving them and beating them. Now, if you’re looking to scare your kids into being good maybe this is your nursery rhyme. My kids seemed to think it was pretty hilarious.

2) Mary Mary Quite Contrary - While it seems like simple nonsense, it actually may be a nice little ditty about mass executions.

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

The Mary being referred to is believed by many to be “Bloody Mary,” the Catholic queen of England who did a pretty good job of filling graveyards with Protestants. The garden referred to is actually a graveyard.

The “silver bells and cockle shells” are instruments of torture. You don’t even wanna’ know what they did. I quickly escaped that internet site.

Oh, and the “Maids” in the poem was the original guillotine!

Just so you know, though, this piqued the interest of my 11-year-old, who came over and started looking over my shoulder. We looked up the meanings of nursery rhymes of all sorts, and pretty much they’re all horror shows. I might as well be reading a Stephen King book to the kids about a killer clown.

3) Ring around the Rosy - What could be wrong with a rhyme that sings of a pocketful of posies and all that?

Well, your kids might just be singing merrily about THE BUBONIC PLAGUE!!!! The symptoms of the plague included a rosy red rash in the shape of a ring on the skin. Pockets were sometimes filled with sweet smelling herbs (posies) due to the belief that the disease was transmitted by bad smells.

And I’m sure you can guess what the term “Ashes Ashes” referred to. In case you can’t—it’s the cremation of the thousands and thousands of dead bodies!

At this point I shooed away the children to continue my “research.” End of nice family time.

4) Remember ol’ Georgie Porgie pudding and pie? Who “Kissed the girls and made them cry, When the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away.” That might be about a dude in the King’s court who was having affairs with all sorts of women, including perhaps one with the Queen, but it turns out ol’ George Porgie was also having a torrid affair with the King himself, thus why he ran off with the boys to play.

Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

All I could think was that I was happy I got rid of the kids before reading that one.

5) Jack and Jill - Jack and Jill are two kids, one of whom sustains a terrible head injury and the other falls down, as well. I’m not sure if she falls down in empathy or what’s going on there.

Historically, it may have referred to King Louis XVI. Jack—who was beheaded (lost his crown)—followed by his Queen Marie Antoinette, Jill, (who came tumbling after).

Even if it’s not about that, why are we teaching a child a rhyme where children sustain terrible injuries? Maybe it’s a good rhyme to teach kids about wearing their helmets when they ride bikes. Although I don’t think a helmet would’ve helped King Louis.

6) Ladybug Ladybug Fly Away Home - This has got to be one of the most disturbing children’s rhymes because even if you don’t know the secret meaning, it’s a complete horror show. The rhyme continues by warning the ladybug, “Your house in on fire and your children are gone, All except one and that’s little Ann, For she crept under the frying pan.”

What?!

Who hides from a fire under a frying pan. And why, instead of coming to tell the the Mommy ladybug about it, wouldn’t you just ... I don’t know ... save the baby ladybug from the fire.

Rhymes.org suggest a meaning that’s pretty nasty:

The English word ladybird is a derivative of the Catholic term “Our Lady.” The tradition of calling this rhyme was believed to have been used as a seemingly innocent warning cry to Catholic (recusants) who refused to attend Protestant services as required by the Act of Uniformity (1559 & 1662). This law forbade priests to say Mass and forbade communicants to attend it. Consequently Mass was held secretly in the open fields. Laymen were subject to jail and heavy fines and priests to execution. Many priests were executed by the terrible death of being burnt alive at the stake or, even worse, being hung, drawn and quartered.

Horrified and pretty sure that Mother Goose was one sick lady, I gathered the children for our nightly prayers just as my wife came in.

After they were all in their beds, the nine-year-old asked me to read some more nursery rhymes. Now, they were interested in nursery rhymes, and the six-year-old started telling his mother all about the horror stories I shared with them about a queen who chopped up Protestants with a cannon and burned children with the plague.

“He doesn’t have it exactly right,” I explained to my wife but really didn’t see the point in elaborating further. I know in her head, she was wondering if she could ever go to another shower and leave me home.

For tomorrow night, I’m thinking maybe the Harry Potter books don’t look so bad after all.

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About Matthew Archbold

Matthew Archbold
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Matt Archbold graduated from Saint Joseph's University in 1995. He is a former journalist who left the newspaper business to raise his five children. He writes for the Creative Minority Report.