Parenting | Family

10 Nursery Rhyme Origins That Will Change Their Meaning Forever


You may remember many of these nursery rhymes for your childhood, but have you ever thought about where they came from?

Some of these popular rhymes come for centuries ago when it was a very different world. From discussing poverty to the ruling king or queen, these poems were a testament of the time.

While you may not always need to read between the lines, some of these classic nursery rhymes have an interesting origin that you may not want to tell your kids about.

This Old Man

"This old man, he played one, He played knick-knack on my thumb, With a knick-knack paddywhack, Give a dog a bone, This old man came rolling home."

Remember this one?

This traditional rhyme was published in 1906 but originates from the time of the Irish potato famine.

The term Paddy is still used by the English to refer to the Irish. Historically there is a great deal of resentment by the Irish people towards the English after they were conquered in the sixteenth century. The English then owned much of the best land and rented houses and farms to the native Irish. The staple food of the Irish was the potato, but in 1845 the potato crop failed which resulted in a famine that led to a 25% reduction of the Irish population because of death or emigration.

With no help from the English, many Irish men became tinkers selling pots, pans, cutlery and other knickknacks door-to-door in England. Typically Irish tinkers lived in a caravan on wheels that was pulled by a horse, which is the meaning behind the term "rolling home".

Jack Be Nimble

"Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick"

Originally published in 1815, it played on an old superstition. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was believed to be good luck to jump over a lighted candle without causing the flame to blow out.

Good thing Jack was quick!

Little Boy Blue

"Little Boy Blue, Come blow your horn, The sheep's in the meadow, The cow's in the corn; Where is that boy Who looks after the sheep? Under the haystack fast asleep. Will you wake him? Oh no, not I, For if I do he will surely cry."

You may remember this rhyme from books, and shows, but this old nursery dates back to 1744. This is a rhyme that warns shepherds about the dangers of falling asleep instead of watching their flock.

The rhyme itself, has been suggested to be referring to Thomas Wosley, the son of a butcher who became a Cardinal during the reign of Henry VIII. He was said to be vain (blowing his own horn), and also kept riches for his own benefit instead of sharing them with his "flock".

Little Jack Horner

"Little Jack Horner, Sat in a corner, Eating his Christmas pie. He put in his thumb, And pulled out a plum, And said 'what a good boy am I'."

Originally published in 1725, it was thought to refer to a Jack Horner who lived at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. Horner served the abbot of Glastonbury and was told to take a huge piece of Christmas pie to the King. The plum inside refers to the deeds to the Manor of Mells in Somerset.

Old King Cole

"Old King Cole was a merry old soul, And a merry old soul was he, He called for his pipe and he called for his bowl And he called for his fiddlers three. Every fiddler he had a fiddle, And a very fine fiddle had he. Oh there's none so rare, as can compare With King Cole and his fiddlers three."

There were many regional kings that were named Coel in 1708 when the poem was first published. This particular rhyme is thought to be referring to 'The Old' Coel Hen. However, another view is that King Cole was referring to Thomas Colebrook, a medieval cloth merchant. The rhyme suggests that whoever King Cole was, he definitely loved music and enjoyed playing his pipe (recorder, flute or bagpipes) with a group of violinists.

Old Mother Hubbard

"Old mother Hubbard,Went to the cupboard, To get her poor dog a bone. But when she got there, The cupboard was bare, And so the poor dog had none."

First published in 1805, the rhyme is thought to be referring to Thomas Wolsey's failure to secure Henry VIII divorce from Catherine of Aragon. This prevented him from being able to marry Anne Boleyn. In the classic rhyme, Wosley is referred to Old Mother Hubbard, Henry VIII is the dog, while the bone is the divorce and the cupboard is the Catholic church.

Pop Goes the Weasel

"Half a pound of tuppeney rice, Half a pound of treacle, That's the way the money goes, Pop! goes the weasel. Up and down the City Road,In and out the Eagle, That's the way the money goes, Pop! goes the weasel."

Originally published in the 1850s, it was said to refer to the difficulties faced by workers who were living in the slums lands of London. "Pop" was a slang word for pawn, while weasel refer to coat. So in other words, people had to pawn their coat in order to feed themselves.

The second verse refers to the Eagle public house which is located on the City Road in London. The warning serves about the dangers of spending too much money on alcohol.

Ring-a-Ring o' Roses

"Ring-a-ring o' roses, A pocket full of poses, Atishoo, Atishoo, We all fall down."

This rhyme was first published in 1881, and is thought to be referring to the symptoms of the Bubonic plague which struck England at various times throughout the Middle Ages. One of the first symptoms of the disease was a ring of red spots, while a posy of herbs was carried to help prevent the disease. Sneezing was the first sign that you had caught the pneumonic form of the plague which meant the usual prognosis was death.

Rock a-Bye Baby

Rock a-bye baby, In the tree tops, When the wind blows, The cradle will rock, When the bough breaks, The cradle will fall, And down will come baby, cradle and all

My little girl loved it when I sang her this rhyme, but taking a second look at the lyrics it sounds pretty bad. Published in 1765, it was thought to have been made up by a young boy who sailed with the Pilgrim Fathers to America. It was said to refer to the native American practice of putting their babies into trees while they worked.

Sing a Song of Sixpence

"Sing a song of sixpence, A pocket full of rye. Four and twenty blackbirds, Baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, The birds began to sing, Wasn't that a dainty dish, To set before the king?"

Did you pay attention in English class during your Shakespeare lessons? If you did, you will know that in his play the Twelfth Night, there is reference to singing a song for sixpence.

In the Middle Ages, pies were often served at royal banquets. Royal cooks tried their best to be creative in the type of pie they produced. In the 16th century it was a popular choice to put live birds in a pie, so that when it was cut open the birds would fly out and delight the dinner guests.

How many of these histories did you know?

Source: Learn a Rhyme