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Nursery Rhymes

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56418.  Wed Mar 01, 2006 4:37 pm Reply with quote

Q: What does 'ring-a-ring-o-roses' mean?

F: The Plague, The Black Death
A: Nothing much

Menocchio will give us the full story, as will Mat, who has a Mythcon on this and other nursery rhyme matters. Hopefully the answer isn't actually 'nothing much'.

NB this question should fit in to the 'doggerel' special.

56478.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 5:20 am Reply with quote

Here’s my Mythcon on nursery rhymes, from many years ago ...

<<THE BACKGROUND: Almost as soon as they've learned the words to "Ring a ring o'roses," children also learn that those lyrics refer to bubonic plague; that all nursery rhymes have a solid origin in history.

THE "TRUTH": Seasoned mythwatchers won't be surprised to learn that the "oral history" theory of nursery rhymes, beloved of the antiquity-obsessed Victorians, was demolished as long ago as 1951, when Iona and Peter Opie published their classic Oxford dictionary of nursery rhymes. The Opies concluded that, far from being corruptions of ancient Icelandic sagas or remnants of political satire from the Middle Ages, most playground jingles are just what they seem to be - catchy and jolly pieces of harmless nonsense. Some of the best-known even have named authors: "Twinkle, twinkle, little star" was published in 1806 by Jane Taylor, while the quintessentially English "Mary had a little lamb" is the work of Sarah J Hale, a Bostonian.

SOURCES: Chiefly, Nursery rhymes without reason by Brian Hunt, Daily Telegraph 21 December 1996.

DISCLAIMER: Or is this an example of revisionist rationalism recoiling so violently from false legend that it ends up creating an equal and opposite myth of its own? If you know more, and you've the time, then tell FT - preferably in rhyme.>>

56480.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 5:36 am Reply with quote

Following the above, a letter in FT124 quoted ‘Crazy But True’ by Jonathan Clements (Armada Books, 1974) that ‘Twinkle’ was written by Mozart at the age of five. (Given our present interest, elsewhere, in early motoring, it’s worth noting that the letter-writer tells us that the same page of the book also gives “the story of the only two cars in Redruth, Cornwall, crashing” in April 1906.)

56484.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 5:47 am Reply with quote

An important point that Snopes makes is that the first appearance of Ring-a-ring in print is from 1881, implying that “children were reciting this nursery rhyme continuously for over five centuries*, yet not one person in that five hundred year span found it popular enough to merit writing it down.”

*My sketchy history has the great plague as 1665, but even so that would be 216 years of playground fun.

And then it comes up with this explanation, which could perhaps link us to dancing?

The more likely explanation is to be found in the religious ban on dancing among many Protestants in the nineteenth century, in Britain as well as here in North America. Adolescents found a way around the dancing ban with what was called in the United States the "play-party." Play-parties consisted of ring games which differed from square dances only in their name and their lack of musical accompaniment. They were hugely popular, and younger children got into the act, too. Some modern nursery games, particularly those which involve rings of children, derive from these play-party games. "Little Sally Saucer" (or "Sally Waters") is one of them, and "Ring Around the Rosie" seems to be another. The rings referred to in the rhymes are literally the rings formed by the playing children. "Ashes, ashes" probably comes from something like "Husha, husha" (another common variant) which refers to stopping the ring and falling silent. And the falling down refers to the jumble of bodies in that ring when they let go of each other and throw themselves into the circle.

56485.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 5:59 am Reply with quote

Following the above, a letter in FT124 quoted ‘Crazy But True’ by Jonathan Clements (Armada Books, 1974) that ‘Twinkle’ was written by Mozart at the age of five.

Crazy but false I think.

Mozart did a "variations on a theme" of the original tune which is French in origin. I think you are right about Jane Taylor though, she is credited with the words "twinkle twinkle".

56489.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 6:15 am Reply with quote

Oh yes, Egg, I don't think there's any doubt about either of those. A lot of people "know" the Mozart fact, however, so we might catch someone with it.

56491.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 6:19 am Reply with quote

So, regrettably, the answer to the question as currently worded does appear to be 'nothing much'. Can we do better?

We did the Mozart thing in the B series music special.

56500.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 6:57 am Reply with quote

The very good Brian Hunt piece referred to above includes other interesting snippets:

The earliest surviving written collection of nursery rhymes (hereinafter, NRs) is ‘Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book,’ 1744. But many surviving rhymes are much older. Some have origins in the jargon of particular trades: ‘Hickory Dickory Dock,’ was how fishermen counted stock [eh? Oh, perhaps he means stock for sale rather than livestock]. Some are fragments of pagan ritual, eg ‘Ladybird, Ladybird’ [how does anyone know?]; some are street sellers’ cries, eg ‘Diddle Diddle Dumpling’ [well, yes, but mightn’t it also be a saucy, Benny Hill style double meaning: ‘diddle’ and ‘dumpling’ both have potential, but one could sing them with mock innocence due to their double duty as advertising jingles. As in “Australians wouldn't give a XXXX.”]

He sees the Opies’ 1951 book as restoring reason to an area of study which had been going steadily bonkers ever since John Bellenden Ker (c1765-1842), a botanist and dandy, claimed NRs were translations from “Low Saxon,” which he claimed in turn was a parent tongue of English, “which he had personally de-constructed from contemporary Dutch.” To prove this theory, he translated the NRs into Low Saxon and then back into English, which process revealed them to be protests against religious oppression. Hunt gives this example:

“The lines ‘Whither shall I wander, upstairs and downstairs ...’ (Goosie, Goosie Gander) became ‘Weer Schell-Hey waent daer/ Op stuyrs aendoen stuyrs’ and hence: ‘I am sure the husbandman’s fleecers are met to load us again with fresh rates; in these meetings compassion for those that pay is a mere shadow.’”

Victorian scholars “vied with each other to suggest an ever-greater antiquity for the rhymes.” Jack and Jill was “traced” to Hjuki and Bil of Icelandic myth.

K.E. Thomas’s book ‘The Real Personages of Mother Goose’ (1930) popularised the idea that NRs were full of political satire. The Opies were “cool” on this idea [in the sense of not keen, rather than the sense of groovy].

The Opies (and Hunt) conclude that “more often than not, it seems” NRs are “innocently nonsensical.” They were written for entertainment, though not necessarily for children: ‘Lavender’s Blue’ was “originally a near-the-knuckle song about sharing a bed.”

NRs emerged as a genre in the early 19th century, with named authors writing new rhymes, while adult rhymes continued to be “appropriated; for example, Septimus Winner’s 1864 vaudeville ditty ‘Where, Oh Where has my Little Dog Gone,’” which - as luck would have it - is about a deefer-Dog, deefer-Dachshund being stolen by a meat manufacturer to be turned into sausages.

Examples of NRs occur in Chinese, classical Latin, and most European languages. Hunt speculates about which current songs will one day be classed as NRs: ‘Yellow Submarine,’ perhaps? There are an estimated 500 rhymes still in circulation in Britain - which sounds an awful lot.

[It occurs to me that NRs is a false category, and therefore any attempt to give a universal theory of where they do or don’t come from is doomed; their origins must be at least as varied as the number of their sub-sets.]

Source: Daily Telegraph, 2 December 1996.

56503.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 6:58 am Reply with quote

Further from my nursery rhymes file ....

Chris Roberts, “a librarian from London” and/or “a historian,” has “discovered many nursery rhymes are far from innocent.” He’s written a book, ‘Heavy Words Lightly Thrown,’ which reveals that when Jack and Jill went up the hill they were “after more than a pail of water.” Jack breaking his crown, and Jill coming tumbling after, “meant that they both lost their virginity.” And he has also uncovered “an alternative - and far cruder - second verse,” which unfortunately is not given in this account. His book apparently shares with us the shocking truth behind 24 familiar rhymes. Oranges and Lemons is “about a bride tempting her groom with a ‘candle to light you to bed’.” Goosey Goosey Gander is about the spread of VD, known as goose bumps because of the swellings. Mary Mary Quite Contrary refers to “cockles” (cuckolds) in the court of Mary Queen of Scots. Baa Baa Black Sheep is about taxation (an unoriginal belief), and - as the paper’s sub-editor put it in in adjacent picture caption - Georgie Porgie “may have been a warning about child obesity ... 150 years before most doctors grew worried.” About Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Three Men in a Tub, Roberts says that in the original version it was three maidens: “it’s about a late medieval peep show.”

Source: Daily Mirror, 3 March 2004.

56504.  Thu Mar 02, 2006 6:59 am Reply with quote

As a sidebar, Hunt speculates about Humpty deefer-Dumpty, which I will post as a separate topic, just to break it up a bit.

57622.  Tue Mar 07, 2006 5:06 am Reply with quote

Traditional mursery rhymes are being rewritten at nursery schools to avoid causing offence to children.

Instead of singing "baa baa black sheep" as generations of children have learnt to do, toddlers in Oxfordshire are being taught to sing "Baa baa, rainbow sheep".

Source: A lazy non-story from The Times, 07-03-06

previous baa baa black sheep bans here and here

57643.  Tue Mar 07, 2006 5:47 am Reply with quote

Egg - they don't name the school, by any chance? This is a story I've been following for the last quarter-century, and have yet to find a version with verifiable facts. Interestingly, "Baa Baa" hasn't come up, to my knowledge, at least, for quite a few years ... I wonder if the Times journalist is very young or very old?

Here's my Mythcon on the subject from some years back:

“Baa Baa White Sheep”

THE BACKGROUND: Younger readers start here. Before "political correctness", but after "right-on", middle-aged people in the quieter parts of Britain entertained themselves by fretting about a phenomenon called "loony leftism".
The culture of the municipal Labour Party changed considerably between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s, as working-class, trade union-based councillors were replaced in many urban areas by younger, university-educated, pressure group activists. These new leading cadres were (or often appeared to be) more interested in so-called cultural issues such as feminism, gay rights and racial identity, than in traditional Labour concerns like libraries and allotments.
Today, inevitably, many of the loony lefties have been re-programmed as loyal Blairies, but in their day they caused apoplexy amongst Telegraph-readers everywhere, for whom the image of primary school children being forced by dungaree-clad Gauleiters to sing "Baa Baa White Sheep" epitomised ghastliness.

THE "TRUTH": It's proverbially impossible to prove a negative, but Baa Baa White Sheep reeks of myth. I worked in local government in the early 1980s, where my search for the source of this popular story never led me further than suspiciously non-specific newspaper reports, and FOAFlore.
The technique of pre-emptive reaction, by which polemicists condemn their opponents for something they haven't done, but might do, is long-established and widely practised. Most of the opposition to the alleged excesses of political correctness (in Britain at least) seems to come under this heading.
I suspect that Baa Baa White Sheep began as a reductio ad absurdum gag; certainly this wouldn't be the first time that a joke has entered the general consciousness as a Well Known Fact.
Variations in the details of the re-sprayed sheep story are also suggestive of mythopoeia. For instance, The Independent (10 August 1995, p.17) claimed that an unnamed white couple, hoping to adopt a black baby in Avon, underwent awareness training "which included singing 'baa baa green sheep'".

DISCLAIMER: Only sheep believe in fairy-tale endings. If you have further information on the Baa Baa business, FT would love to hear your bleatings.

57653.  Tue Mar 07, 2006 6:12 am Reply with quote

Hi Mat, as I said, it read very much as a piece of lazy journalism - stolen from a local paper and padded out with wikipedia facts - however if you don't mind I've scanned the article and e-mailed it to you for your delectation.

57691.  Tue Mar 07, 2006 7:22 am Reply with quote

In The Independent (29 November 2004) a letter-writer from Harrow reported that “My child went to a day nursery in Brent in the 1980s and it [Baa Baa Black Sheep] was banned. The children were allowed to sing ‘Baa-Baa Green Sheep’.” But, as usual, the name of the school's not given, and the nature of the “ban” is not specified.

An article in The Independent (26 September 2002) discusses “Baa Baa Green Sheep” and unequivocally says there never was a ban. The writer adds: “One nursery school in Birmingham was advised [no date given] by the city council, on comments from the Working Group Against Racism in Children’s Resources, that ‘whenever the word black is attached to another word it creates a negative meaning which can make children feel embarrassed and confused about their identity - Black Monday, Black Wednesday and black sheep all conjure up negative images [black sheep? Why?]. Teachers should become more aware of the negative feelings this can evoke in children. There are a lot of other nursery rhymes for children to sing.’ [but ..] the advice was not taken. That did not stop The Sun and the Daily Mail turning it into a minor cause celebre.”

A letter in Fortean Times 147 suggested that banning Baa Baa was “a self-realising piece of bollocks” - and of course it’s not uncommon for this kind of ostension to occur; contrary to the intentions of the anti-PC propagandists, some people hear mythical tales of Baa Baa bannings and the like and either think it’s a good idea, or else assume it’s true, and therefore take it on themselves to follow it.

Here’s another report on the Birmingham case mentioned above:
“Education chiefs” who tried to ban Baa baa because it was “racially offensive” and a reference to slavery were overruled by “officials,” following complaints from black parents who thought it was daft.
- The Mirror, 13 January 2000.

57694.  Tue Mar 07, 2006 7:35 am Reply with quote

In the Morning Star (10 September 2005), Ken Livingstone reviewed “Culture wars: the Media and the British Left” by James Curran, Ivor Gaber and Julian Petley, published by Edinburgh University Press, and surveys some of the propaganda stories published in the rightist media in the 1980s - “such as the alleged ‘bans’ on black bin liners and ‘baa baa black sheep’ or the claim that Brent council was sending black children to Cuba but not white ones.”

He also picks out a Sun story headlined “Barmy Bernie is going coffee-potty” and straplined “Staff must drink Marxist brew.” Barmy Bernie was the (actually rather moderate, in his context - but black, and therefore an extremist in News International’s eyes) council leader Bernie Grant. The Sun explained “The left-wing council led by ‘Barmy’ Bernie Grant has ordered its workers to show ‘solidarity’ with Nicaragua - by drinking the Marxist country’s grotty coffee.”

The story was taken up by papers all over the country. The Manchester Daily Star reported that Haringey ratepayers were having to pay for Marxist coffee to be drunk by the staff in a new unit “set up to help local lesbians and gays!”

(Quinterestingly, but rather off-topically, the strategy at the time was to plant such stories in regional papers, rather than nationals, as it was felt that they were more trusted by sceptical readers).

Anyway, as the book points out, the only slight flaw in the Marxist coffee story was that no such order ever existed.

I was a council worker in those days, and would sometimes meet, in borough staff rooms, council employees who believed what they read in the papers - in other words, what appeared in the papers was credible to them despite the fact that they knew, from their own direct experience, that it wasn't true. The really fascinating thing about propaganda is that it’s so incredibly easy! Spin doctors must work shorter hours than any other profession.

Nowadays, of course, almost all the newspapers are openly racist, so they don’t need to use the camouflage of “loony left” stories nearly so much as they did twenty years ago. (Although I continue to log hilarious stories, sometimes based on centuries-old tales, concerning “bogus asylum seekers”.) Respectable, broadsheet newspapers publish folklore as news on a daily basis. An’ that’s a fact.


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