Dark Rhymes

Posted by

Nursery rhymes are important for children’s language evolution and help with their speech development. Some nursery rhymes are even recited while playing games which add fun to their learning.

However, do you know that some of the nursery rhymes you’re teaching your toddler has some awful dark meaning? It may surprise you that many of the English nursery rhymes are about death and destruction.

Take for example Humpty Dumpty.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again.

It is believed that this rhyme can be traced back to the 18th century. I am not sure why a character who is already frail and fragile would sit precariously on a wall. It is like an invitation for disaster and it is an accident waiting to happen. And it did happen.

Sadly to say Humpty Dumpty cannot be saved even with the greatest rescue and resuscitation squad. So why are we saying a rhyme to our innocent kids about a person who fell and died?

Some historians suggested that Humpty Dumpty is King Richard III of England, who is supposed to have been humpbacked and who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. True or not, it is difficult to confirm.

Then there is the Ring Around the Rosies.

Ring around the rosies
Pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down!

Usually it’s sung by young children while they stand in a circle holding hands, and then true to their word, they all fall down to the ground when the song ends.

If you think this is a cute child’s game and an innocent nursery rhyme, then you are ‘dead’ wrong (pun intended). This rhyme is about the Black Death or Bubonic Plague that swept England in the 14th century. The plague killed about 25 million people in Europe, about a third of the continent’s population.

The rosies in the rhyme describes the red marks in the body of those afflicted with the bubonic plague, while the posies were the flowers which were used to lessen the stench of dead bodies all over. The ashes represent the cremated bodies who died from the plague, and the falling down meant, we are all falling down dead. What a morbid rhyme!

Though there are some historians that believe this nursery rhyme has nothing to do with the Black Death. Believe what you want to believe, but I don’t think I like my kids reciting that rhyme now that I know the meaning behind this.

Then the last English nursery rhyme I would like to consider is London Bridge Is Falling Down.

London Bridge is falling down
Falling down, falling down
London Bridge is falling down
My fair lady.

It is a singing game that you probably played when you were a child, chanting the tune as you go underneath those extended arms of your playmates and trying not to get caught as the “arch” fell down.

The rhyme deals with the deterioration of the famous London Bridge and its never-ending failure to stay intact. Until the middle of the 18th century, the London Bridge was the only crossing structure for people on the Thames River in London.

The most commonly accepted origin story for the rhyme is that of the London Bridge actually falling down in 1014, because Viking leader Olaf II allegedly pulled it down during an invasion of the British Isles. The bridge was also damaged in a big fire in 1212 but was rebuilt, only to be destroyed twice in two separate uprisings in 1381 and 1450. It was again destroyed by fire in1633, and narrowly escaped more damage in the fire of 1666. The bridge was finally replaced in the early nineteen century.

In addition to the mystery behind the song, there’s also the matter of who is the “fair lady.” Some of the possible theories include the Virgin Mary, a few royal consorts like Eleanor of Provence, Matilda of Scotland, and also could be a member of the Leigh family of Stoneleigh Park. However, none of these ladies has ever been definitively proven to be the fair lady of the song.

The London Bridge though was very intact and was not falling down in the above photo. The photographer was actually taking a picture of the trash bin, I just happen to be nearby.

Decades or centuries from now, will there be a nursery rhyme about falling twin towers? How about a pandemic from a “crown” virus? That would be appalling.

So I wonder, is it only English nursery rhymes that deals with death and destruction or is it true in other cultures also? Well, I did not have to go so far, being from the Philippines, I know a popular nursery rhyme that chants a gruesome story.

Isa, dalawa, tatlo
Ang tatay mong kalbo
Pumasok sa banyo
Nabasag ang ulo.

Here’s a loose English translation of the above:

One, two, three
Your bald daddy
Went into the toilet
And cracked his head.

I rest my case.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s