Most nursery rhymes are something that we grow up around, either humming along to in kindergarten or rocked to sleep to by our loving caregivers.
But did you know that some of the most popular nursery rhymes have a darker meaning? Scroll on to find out…
‘Pop Goes the Weasel’
While the catchy tune may seem innocent enough, the song actually has nothing to do with the animal but is actually a song to commemorate and honor England’s poverty. There seems to be two schools of thought on what the song is actually saying.
“The first idea is that the rhyme is written in Cockney rhyming slang – a popular way of speaking in Victorian London’s East End, which people used to disguise what they were saying. In this idea, ‘weasel’ means ‘coat’ and ‘pop’ is all about pawning possessions (which you can find out about lower down)” according to the Museum of London.
“Other people think that the rhyme is about some of the weavers who lived and worked in an area of East London called Spitalfields. When weaving fabrics, they would use a machine called a ‘weasel’, which made a popping sound,” the museum states.
While the melody is a sweet one, the ominous lyrics say otherwise to what is really going on in this tale. There are many theories about the song’s origins, including famous royals worried about the heir to the throne to a story of a couple who let their baby sleep in a hollowed-out tree.
“According to this political theory, the lyrics of ‘Rock-A-Bye Bab’ were a death wish directed at the infant son of King James II, hoping he would die and be replaced by a Protestant king,” according to Wonderopolis.
“Others believe the lyrics came from a woman named Betty Kenny, who lived with her husband, Luke, and their eight children in a 2,000-year-old yew tree in a place called Shining Cliff Woods in Derbyshire, England. According to legend, Betty used a hollowed-out branch of the tree as a cradle to rock her children to sleep.”
‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’
This popular tune was said to be made popular by prisoners — ominous, eh?
“This mid-19th century rhyme is thought to be about female Victorian prisoners exercising at HMP Wakefield in West Yorkshire,” The Sun reports. “The women would dance with their children around a mulberry tree – which still stands today – and they are believed to have taught their kids this rhyme to keep them entertained.”
‘Baa, Baa, Black Sheep’
This timeless classic has long divided historians on what exactly the song is about but it according to one theory — is about a medieval wood tax that began in 1275.
“The most common conclusion is that it’s actually about the Great Custom, which was a tax on wool in the 13th century,” according to History Answer.
“Under the new taxes the price of a sack of wool was split between the farmer, king and church. It takes on sinister connotations if you consider that the original last line was ‘And none for the little boy who cries down the lane’, indicating that the poor shepherd boys were left with no profits due to the heavy tax.
‘Ring Around the Rosie’
According to James FitzGerald, the rhyme first originated during the Great Plague, where there was an outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plague which affected London in the year 1665:
Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses is all about the Great Plague; the apparent whimsy being a foil for one of London’s most atavistic dreads (thanks to the Black Death). The fatalism of the rhyme is brutal: the roses are a euphemism for deadly rashes, the posies a supposed preventative measure; the a-tishoos pertain to sneezing symptoms, and the implication of everyone falling down is, well, death.
‘London Bridge Is Falling Down’
Like many fellow nursery rhymes, London Bridge Is Falling Down has also been wildly debated by historians and other experts. That being said, the most commonly accepted origin story for the rhyme is that of the London Bridge actually falling down in 1014 — as Viking leader Olaf Haraldsson allegedly pulled it down during an invasion of the British Isles.
And while the reality of that attack has yet to be proven, the tale of it inspired a collection of Old Norse poems written in 1230, containing a verse that sounds close to the nursery rhyme. It translates to “London Bridge is broken down. Gold is won, and bright renown.”
However, that is not the only event that could have launched the London Bridge rhyme. Part of the bridge was damaged in 1281 due to ice damage, and it was weakened by multiple fires in the 1600s — including the Great Fire of London in 1666. Another disturbing theory behind the bridge’s longevity is how there may have been bodies encased in its moorings.
Maybe it’s time we start creating up some new nursery rhymes with a bit of a brighter background story to them, eh?
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