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Traditional British Nursery Rhymes and What They Mean

Image representing a student learning traditional British nursery rhymes and their meaning

If you started learning English when you were very young, you might remember being taught some “nursery rhymes”. These are simple songs for children that teach them a new idea, contain some sort of lesson, or sometimes are just supposed to keep them entertained.

For example, this is a modern nursery rhyme designed to help children learn to count:

Ten little speckled frogs

Sat on a speckled log

Eating the most delicious bugs

One jumped into the pool

Where it was nice and cool

Then there were just nine speckled frogs.

Nine little speckled frogs… etc.

Or this popular nursery rhyme, written in 1907, which is just supposed to be fun for kids:

If you go down to the woods today you’re sure of a big surprise

If you go down to the woods today you’d better go in disguise

For every bear that ever there was will gather there for certain

Because today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic!

But while songs like these ones are pretty sweet and innocent, many of the older nursery rhymes that every British child knows off by heart – and that you might have learned, too – are actually about something very dark and scary.

Take “Ring O’ Roses” for example. This is a very old nursery rhyme that goes like this:

Ring o’ ring o’ roses

A pocket full of posies

A’tish- you! A’tish-you!

We all fall down.

(“Ring o’ roses” is short for “ring of roses” , posies are a type of flower, and “a’tish-you!” is the sound you make when you sneeze.)

No one knows exactly how old the song is, but it’s at least a few hundred years. Many people think it is about the Bubonic Plague, also called the Black Death, which was a terrible illness carried by rat fleas that killed around 60% of people in Europe (50 million people) between 1346 and 1353.

So what does the song mean?

Well, at that time, people didn’t understand how disease and hygiene worked. They thought that the sickness was spread by bad smells, so many people carried bunches of flowers, like posies, to “clean” the air and protect themselves from breathing in bad smells. The first symptoms of the plague were a circular red rash (a ring of roses), and then you would start sneezing… and when that happened, you were almost certain to fall down dead.

Not such a nice song now, is it?

Other nursery rhymes are even creepier. Take this one:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle shells

And pretty maids all in a row

Most children singing this today won’t realise it, but this song definitely isn’t about a garden! In fact, it’s about Mary I of England, who ruled from 1553 to 1558.

Queen Mary’s father, Henry VIII, had changed England’s religion from Catholicism to Protestantism, but Mary was a strict Catholic and wanted to change the country back as fast as possible. She killed Protestants who refused to convert, and torturing many people – including with devices called silver bells and cockle shells.

Hopefully this information hasn’t ruined your childhood memories too much!

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