Dark Rhymes: The Hidden Meanings Behind Our Favorite Children's Nursery Rhymes
Lizzie Borden took an axe,
And gave her mother forty whacks.
And when she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.
While many know that this popular children’s jump-rope rhyme refers to the infamous hatchet murders that took place in Fall River, Massachusetts on August 4, 1892, allegedly at the hands of New England spinster Lizzie Borden (who many believe killed her father and stepmother), few know the dark and hidden meanings behind many other rhymes that were popular through the ages. Here is a look at a few of the most popular--and notorious.
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary:
Mistress Mary, quite contrary,.
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
With pretty maids all in a row.
Identified with Mary I of England, "How does your garden grow?" is said to be a mocking reference to her womb and the fact that she never produced heirs, as well as a pun aimed at her chief minister, Stephen Gardiner--her "gardener." "Quite contrary" is believed to be a veiled nod to her unsuccessful attempt to reverse ecclesiastical changes put into effect by her father Henry VIII and her brother Edward VI. The "pretty maids all in a row" are references to her many miscarriages, as well as the execution of Lady Jane Grey after coming to the throne. "All in a row" is also said to refer to her infamous burnings and executions of Protestants, while "silver bells and cockle shells" are colloquialisms for instruments of torture referring to her "Bloody Mary” image .
Little Jack Horner:
Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie;
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said 'What a good boy am I!'
In the nineteenth century the story became accepted that this rhyme is actually about Thomas Horner, who was steward to Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury before the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII of England. As the story is told, prior to the abbey's destruction, the abbot sent Horner to London with a huge Christmas pie which had the deeds to a dozen manors hidden inside, and that during the journey Horner opened the pie, removed, and then absconded with the deeds. It is further said that since the manor properties included lead mines in the Mendip Hills, the “plum” is a pun for the Latin plumbum, for lead.
Jack Be Nimble:
Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jump over
This rhyme is first recorded in a manuscript around 1815 and was collected by James Orchard Halliwell in the mid-nineteenth century who verified that jumping candlesticks was a form of fortunetelling and a popular parlor game. Good luck was said to be indicated by clearing a candle without extinguishing the flame. This rhyme is thought to have been a covert method of referring to what was otherwise an illegal act.
Ring Around the Rosey:
Ring around the rosey,.
A pocket full of poseys,
We all fall down.
Many associate this poem with the Great Plague which occurred in England in 1665, or with earlier outbreaks of the Black Death in England. The “rosey rash,” was the first symptom of the plague, "posies" were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease, sneezing or coughing was a final, fatal symptom, and "all fall down" was the end result. The line “Ashes, ashes” is said to refer variously to the practice of cremating the bodies, the burning of victims' houses, or sometimes, to the ashen blackening of the skin the disease caused.
Bah Bah Black Sheep:
Bah, bah a black sheep,.
Have you any wool?
Yes, merry have I,
Three bags full.
One for my master,
One for my Dame,
One for the little boy
That lives down the lane.
Long said to be a veiled mockery of the centuries-old slave trade, a controversy emerged over changing the language of 'Bah Bah Black Sheep' in Britain in 1986 because it was seen as racially insensitive. A similar controversy emerged in 1999 when reservations about the rhyme were submitted to Birmingham City Council by a working group on racism in children's resources.
Humpty Dumpty sate on a wall,.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
Threescore men and threescore more,
Cannot place Humpty Dumpty as he was before.
The popular belief is that this seemingly harmless verse is actually referring to King Richard III of England, depicted in Tudor histories and in the Shakespearean play as humpbacked, who was defeated in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485 despite his formidable armies
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