A recent blog post at Londonist describes “Five London Nursery Rhymes Depicting Death and Ruin.” The rhymes in question have diverse origins and histories, but what seems incontrovertible from James FitzGerald’s work is that they describe dark and portentous matters from English history.
Or do they? Looking closely at these rhymes, and at scholarship surrounding them, suggests other interpretations. I’ll discuss one of the rhymes in particular, because it tells us interesting things about folklore and our ideas about folklore: “Ring Around the Rosie,” or “Ring-a-Ring-a-Roses,” as it’s sometimes known.
FitzGerald’s text goes like this:
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
FitzGerald states emphatically that this rhyme arose from the Great Plague, an outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plague that 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.
This interpretation emerged in the mid-twentieth century, and has become widespread, but it has never been accepted by folklorists, for several reasons. First, like most folklore items, this rhyme exists in many versions and variants. This allows us to ask whether the specific images associated with the plague occur in all or even most versions. It turns out they don’t. Many versions have no words that sound like sneezes, and many versions don’t mention falling down. For example, Iona and Peter Opie give an 1883 version (in which “curchey” is dialect for “curtsey”):
A ring, a ring o’roses A pocket full of posies One for Jack and one for Jim and one for little Moses A curchey in and a curchey out And a curchey all together
Moreover, in many versions , everyone gets up again once they have fallen down, which hardly makes sense if falling down represents death.
“Posies,” or bouquets of flowers, are almost universal in the song. However, many versions do not make them portable but install them in in pots or bottles, which doesn’t fit well with the plague interpretation. William Wells Newell, writing in 1883, gave several versions, including:
Round the ring of roses Pots full of posies The one who stoops last Shall tell whom she loves best
Ring around the rosie Bottle full of posy All the girls in our town Ring for little Josie
On May 16, 1939, in Wiergate, Texas, John and Ruby Lomax collected an interesting version for the Library of Congress, from a group of African American schoolgirls. You can hear it in the player below. The words were as follows:
Ring around a Rosey Pocketful o’ posies Light bread, sweet bread, squat! Guess who she told me, tralalalala Mr. Red was her lover, tralalalala If you love him, hug him! If you hate him, stomp!
None of these versions fits the plague interpretation very well, but they do reveal other functions and meanings: the rhyme is often used as a playful courtship game in which children dance in a ring, then suddenly stoop, squat, curtsey (“curchey”), or in some cases fall to the ground. The last to do so (or the one that jumps the gun) has to pay a penalty, which is sometimes to profess love for (or hug or kiss) another child. In some versions, this child then takes up a place in the middle of the ring, representing the “rosie” or rose bush. Newell explicitly states that the game was played like this in America in the 1880s, and European analogs from the same time and later are similar. In many versions, then, the roses and posies signify what flowers often signify in traditional European culture: not suffering and death, but joy and love.
The above observations show that “Ring Around the Rosie” is a “singing-game” or a “play-party song,” both of which are names for children’s dance songs. Plague theorists say it’s still possible that the plague was the original meaning, and that children pressed the rhyme into service for their games and dances. But there are other reasons, too, not to believe the plague story. For example, this rhyme and dance are internationally distributed, and records turn up on the European continent before they do in England. The Opies give versions from Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, among other places. Meanwhile, there’s no evidence the rhyme existed in English until the late 19th Century. Newell, writing in 1883, asserted that the rhyme was known in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1790, but he gave no evidence, and none has come to light. After this unsubstantiated claim, the rhyme doesn’t turn up in English until 1881. What evidence is there it survived undocumented since 1665?
The claim that the rhyme is related to pestilence is even younger; the folklorists who diligently recorded the rhyme itself in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries never mention the plague interpretation, although they surely would have had they known it. The first evidence I’ve seen that people were connecting the rhyme with death and disaster is from 1949, when the newspaper The Observer ran a parody of the rhyme beginning “ring-a-ring-o’-geranium, a pocketful of uranium” and referring to the bombing of Hiroshima. In 1951, we find the first direct reference to the plague interpretation: Iona and Peter Opie state that some people believe the rhyme refers to the plague, but are not themselves convinced.
Finally, there’s simply no direct evidence. Even if the rhyme itself remained unrecorded for two hundred years after the plague, various types of evidence might exist: a description of children playing dancing-games referring to roses and mocking the plague, or oral traditions of the earliest informants making the link. As it turns out, though, neither of these kinds of evidence has turned up, despite meticulous day-to-day accounts of life in London in 1665, and accounts of the Plague by people who lived through it. So today’s scholars want to know: how did the first person who claimed a connection between the events of 1665 and this rhyme find out about that connection, and why can’t we find whatever evidence he or she had?
All this makes scholars skeptical, to say the least. In 2010 English folklorist and librarian Steve Roud noted that “the Plague origin is complete nonsense,” and in the 1980s, the Opies (who first recorded and debunked the belief in 1951) wrote: “We ourselves have had to listen so often to this interpretation we are reluctant to go out of the house.”
Still, the story only seems to have grown stronger in the second half of the twentieth century, and this itself is interesting to folklorists. After all, the story is itself folklore: a tale that was passed on by word of mouth first, then in writing and online media. And because it is also about folklore, folklorists classify it as “metafolklore”: folklore about folklore.
If the plague story is folklore, we would expect to encounter it in different versions and variants. And so we do. The two main variants are the Londonist’s claim that the rhyme refers to the Great Plague of 1665, and others’ claims that it stems from the Black Death of 1347. Within these two main variants, there are sub-variants: in particular, FitzGerald and others say the 1665 rhyme originated in London, while others say it came from Eyam, a village in the English Midlands that was also infected with plague in 1665. One article even claims Eyam children sang it “while dancing around the victims!”
There are also innumerable individual versions of this story, each with its own quirks. Because the plague can infect different parts of the body and cause different symptoms, because people know about or imagine different historical health practices, and because different versions of the rhyme have different specific words, plague stories vary widely in the correspondences they find between words and plague experiences: for some, “a-tishoo” signifies a sneeze, while for others “ashes” signify cremation. For supporters of pneumonic plague, the ring is a rosy skin rash, while for supporters of the bubonic plague it’s a red inflammation around a black buboe. In fact, observing the many different ways in which “Ring Around the Rosie” has been said to conform to real or supposed symptoms, it seems clear that the story did not grow from compelling evidence; rather, evidence has been gathered to support a compelling story.
Metafolkloric stories can be either accurate or inaccurate, but in either case, there’s usually a compelling reason we keep telling them, or a deeper truth they express. So one question folklorists like to ask is: “What has been so interesting to people about this story?” That’s a hard question to answer, but we can note certain patterns in the kinds of people who tell it. It’s very appealing to historians, for whom a glimpse of the distant past in the present is always exciting. It’s especially compelling to historians of the plagues themselves; in fact, standard works about the 1347 plague and the 1665 plague recount the story as fact. Part of the task of such historians is to explain how the plague has continued to influence our lives, and the chance to mention a rhyme everyone knows and connect it to this deep history is irresistible. Secondly, the story is often told by advocates for particular places. Travel blogs spread the Eyam story, while Londonist “celebrates London and everything that happens in it.” Advocates for medical education and even for sanitary sewers have used the song’s supposed connection to disease to suggest that their particular expertise remains relevant to anyone who has heard this common rhyme. Finally, there are many people with a love of the macabre, and nothing is more disturbing than the idea of little children playing to a description of pestilence and death.
Our love for the plague story goes deeper than the agendas of a few interest groups, though. Even professors who know it’s not true can’t resist telling it! Folklorists know better than anyone the fascination with things that are older than they seem, and with “extraordinary origins of everyday things.” Some founders of the discipline of folklore espoused the theory of survivals, which held that cultural materials such as nursery rhymes preserved information from the past that was otherwise forgotten. To adherents of this theory, a shard of pottery, a riddle, or a child’s jingle could be the key that unlocked the mythology of the distant past, and the folklorist’s task was to interpret or decode the cryptic messages within these fragments. In fact, the irony is that the plague story resembles nothing so much as a nineteenth-century folklorist’s interpretation of the rhyme, but today’s folklorists often express annoyance with the tale’s persistence. Maybe it reminds us too much of ourselves.
In any case, we certainly understand its appeal: in the marketplace of ideas, a good story often outsells mere facts.
Do you know an interesting story about a nursery rhyme that you’re curious about? Leave us a comment below!
Several of the books cited above with links to their Library of Congress catalog records are also available elsewhere as free electronic resources. The Library of Congress can’t always vouch for the quality of reproduction, the accuracy of the text, or the beauty of the presentation, but they may be useful to our readers. These items are in the public domain:
Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes, illustrated by Kate Greenaway
Ring O’ Roses, by Leonard Leslie Brooke
A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 1659-1669, edited by Henry B. Wheatley
One that I have sometimes heard is that “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary” is a reference to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. I have my doubts, but would be interested in knowing more about the idea.
Thanks, Lisa. That idea has been around for a long time, but there are competing interpretations too. One holds that it is a description of Our Lady’s convent, which would metaphorically be Mary’s garden. The bells are the church bells, the shells were worn as badges by pilgrims, and the maids are the nuns. The story about Mary Queen of Scots suggests that the shells and bells were decorations on her dress, and the pretty maids her ladies-in-waiting, the famous “Four Marys.”
As the Opies point out, the connection to Mary Queen of Scots is certainly somebody’s guess; there is no real evidence for it. But it’s not impossible: while the rhyme was not recorded until 1744, there is a dance tune whose title is “Cuckolds all in a Row,” which is a line of one 18th-century version of the Mary rhyme. The tune fits the rhyme, and goes back at least to 1651, which suggests the rhyme could be that old. Mary Queen of Scots died in 1587, so there isn’t that great a time gap between her life and the first stirrings of evidence of the rhyme.
” nothing is more disturbing than the idea of little children playing to a description of pestilence and death” – Actually, the idea of little children dancing and singing around actual plague victims is more disturbing, at least to me! 😉
I always enjoy reading Stephen’s essays on things folkloric. They are well-researched, well-written, and often both amusing and enlightening.
Your point is taken, Pat! And thanks for your kind comment!
I would be very interested in seeing links to old books go to the scans of the actual old books where copyright or other impediment is not at issue. This seems to be an increasing trend among libraries and museums to maintain such archives. It hugely increases access and at the same time protects and preserves the actual copy, causing far less deterioration as 90% of the needs for any access can be achieved in the digital archive.
I would find it very interesting to correlate (and a page of fixed links could do it) the many political conversations that could not be had openly for fear that you would be killed, but a tune hummed or a nursery rhyme could be equally devastating and no individual could be charged with actual advocacy.
Such a list could provide many fascinating details not normally recorded.
Bob Danforth, thanks for your comment. The Library of Congress doesn’t have a large collection of online digital public domain books over which we exercise strict quality control, but we do participate in projects to digitize books, including the Hathi Trust. I’ve added a resource list with links to online versions of the four public-domain items cited in the text. In three cases I used the Hathi Trust versions, although others are available on the internet. For the Pepys diary, I opted for another site, because the diary is a multivolume work and the relevant entries spread over three of the volumes. For that reason, I selected a simple HTML site presenting the entire text, so readers wouldn’t have to search each volume separately.
Thanks, this is great. Eyam’s accumulating a whole range of plague-related motifs. In the village you can find, for example, a weathervane representing a plague-spreading rat, even though the village legend traditions don’t blame this particular outbreak of plague on rats at all. (The infected fleas are supposed to have arrived in a parcel of cloth delivered to a village tailor).
Nice article. Thank you.
I heard, and accepted, that the plague explanation was merely a “Just So” story for 50 years but it was always just summarily dismissed. If an explanation was given, it was a statement that there is no evidence to accept that it’s true and the burden is on the claimer. Of course, that’s true but it’s far more satisfying to read the negative evidence and reasoning that _does_ exist.
I feel better now.
You know, the way it was explained to me had nothing to do with the traits of the disease itself. Rather, it was about the morality of it all.
“Ring around the Rosie” — refers to counting the Rosary while praying. Both Catholicism and Church of England have this tradition.
“Pocket Full of Posies” — explained to me as stuffing the pockets of the dead with flowers to help ward off stench, but may also be a reference to “Posie rings” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Posie_ring)
“Ashes, ashes” — as in “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”
“We all fall down” — self-explanatory in this context.
This is not to say that this interpretation is any less apocryphal than the ones outlined above–and the fact that “ashes, ashes” is an American variant is especially abrogating–but as interpreted above, it is a cohesive thought relative to one aspect of the Plague.
In fact, given the multiple variations and interpretations above, it is unlikely that it was ever written specifically to reference the plague. But who’s to say that it wasn’t appropriated and repurposed for that? After all, Folklore is replete with examples of cultural appropriation.
B. Ross, thanks for your comment and your unusual version of the Plague story. It’s still unlikely that the rhyme was appropriated and repurposed at the time of the plague, simply because there’s no evidence it existed then. But it is certainly true that the rhyme was appropriated and repurposed to tell a story about the plague after the fact. Usually the story is a variant of “the Plague affected modern life in unexpected ways.” Your version is no exception; in this case, it’s the prayers in response to the Plague that became a nursery rhyme rather than a description of its effects. So the emphasis, as you say, is on the moral and spiritual aspects rather than the physical and medical.
Great article! Well done! I seem to recall that during the 1959+ Ban the Bomb movement in England, one poet published two small collections of re-worked nursery rhymes, etc., on the subject. One, as I recall, was “A-ring around a neutron / a-pocket full of positron / a-fission, a-fission / we all fall down.” Kind-a like your 1949 example.
Thanks, Joe. By then the idea that “Ring Around the Rosie” was about the Plague was already common in England, which is probably where the idea came from to connect it to other deadly disasters.
I can make a personal note that corroborates the Texas 1939 Lomax version of this song. I spent my childhood in the Piedmont region of North Carolina (Winston-Salem) and distinctly remember in the 1940’s on the Elementary School playground singing this song with these words: Ring around the Rosie, Pocketful of posies. Red Bird, Blue Bird, Squat! Rosie was the child in the middle and the last child in the ring to squat became the next Rosie. I don’t know why we would have said Red Bird, Blue Bird instead of Light Bread, Sweet Bread as they did in Texas. But I do know that my grandmother and mother did not bake light or yeast breads. They only made quick breads like corn bread and biscuits.
Thanks for the interesting North Carolina version and the description of the game, Ann. It’s always nice to get new folklore items from our readers!
Has anyone suggested that the “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!” line might be related to sneezing because of the flowers themselves? Certainly taking a whiff of strong smelling fresh flowers might induce that reaction in many, especially of course if you have allergies.
That’s certainly a possibility for those versions that feature sneezing sounds. Thanks for the suggestion!
I was very intrested in reading the articles on folkloric.That are really good.
Love that Texas version! Folklore in general, and sometimes children’s folklore in particular, is – very often – so refreshingly non-pc…
I wanna know who created this song or nursery rhyme because I don’t want to know it at all.
This is refferd to the Black Death,”ashes ashes”-the corpses after the Black Death were all burned so that makes sense,everything else,look for another comment
Hi, this rhyme was also used in a childrens television series, in which a girl living or visiting an old manor house has visions of soldiers marching through the same house in past times. Does anyone know the name of this TV show?? Don’t know whether it was British or American, it was broadcast in the seventies, maybe early eighties.
i want to know the true meaning,
if the song means something bad or evil
It doesn’t seem to mean anything bad or evil. It seems to be a game where the words describe the actions the kids are supposed to do. In some versions, kids kiss other kids, so your reaction might depend on the version and on what you think is proper behavior!
“Ring around the rosie”: Once I was in London, i’ve heard the story that when a person was brought to execution and was going warded through the streets to the execution place – people, family members or supporters threw flowers to them and sang the song to them.
Thanks, Brigita, for your comment. It’s interesting that completely different stories exist connecting the rhyme to earlier historical periods and to death imagery. All such stories are metafolklore, and so far none of them has any good evidence to back it up. As I said in the post, it is possible for metafolkloric stories to also be true, but in these cases no reference to the rhyme at all turns up before 1881, and public executions ceased in England in 1868; after that executions were usually conducted in private within the prison where the prisoner already was kept, so there was no journey to a place of execution. So, while it’s not impossible that the rhyme was used that way before 1868, there’s no direct evidence, and all the indirect evidence points the other way: the rhyme probably didn’t exist when public executions were common in England. In general, most folklorists would call that story a fascinating variant of the general idea that the seemingly simple and innocent nursery rhyme actually has a dark and secret history.
With absolutely no evidence, except the unsatisfactoriness of explanations I have found, I have always wondered if “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe” might be an unkind British satire concerning the Catholic Church, with the shoe a reference to the shape of Italy. The specifics about the whipping, the broth, etc. would depend on the political moment in which the rhyme originated, the inquisition being a possible reference. Has anyone ever looked into the possibility?
Thanks, Jessica. I have seen that interpretation, but I do not know its origin. The version I saw did not mention the inquisition, just the generally impoverished conditions of many Catholics in the south of Italy, which does suggest certain historical periods over others. This reading turns up in various dark corners of the web, such as this one. A more general interpretation notes that shoes are an old fertility symbol, showing up in such contexts as Cinderella’s glass slipper and the old custom of throwing shoes at the bride and groom at a wedding (which survives today in the form of tying old shoes to the rear bumper of their car). Alan Dundes discusses this in his essay “Projection in Folklore,” available in the book Interpreting Folklore. His idea seems to be that the old woman “living in a shoe” suggests an over-emphasis on sexuality, which leads to having too many children, but he is not explicit on this point. As he so often does, he flits from folklore item to folklore item, discussing at greater length another rhyme:
My dame has lost her shoe
My master’s lost his fiddling-stick
They don’t know what to do
This rhyme can also be found in the classic collections by Iona and Peter Opie. As Dundes points out, the fact that a wife loses her “shoe” and a husband his “stick,” leading to them “not knowing what to do” is certainly suggestive that these are sexual metaphors. However, as with much humorously sexual folklore, there is also an innocent explanation: they were planning to go to a dance, where he would have contributed to the music and she to the dancing. With only one shoe and one fiddlestick, they won’t be able to perform their roles!
I am Irish,and was born in Ireland in 1956 and remember when I was very young that our elders explained,
‘ ring- a- ring- a- rosie ,
a pocket full of posie,
we all fall down
as being a London city children’s game.
‘ring -a -ring -a rosy’
they explained as tuberculosis (TB) the pale round rose color on the patient’s cheeks
‘ a pocket full of posies ‘
they explained that doctors attending this patient carried pockets of lavender herb which they used as a disinfectant to protect themselves from contracting the disease.They would regularly remove a bunch of lavender from their pockets and crush and wash their hands and face with it.
they explained as being on deaths door
‘we all fall down’
they explained as death in very large numbers or an epidemic.
This version continues to be retold and is most popular here in Ireland.
Thanks for those details, Pat. It’s very interesting that in Irish versions of the legend from the 1950s and 1960s, the disease had become tuberculosis. It shows that, while the legend can serve to associate the rhyme with the Middle Ages, other versions can be more up to date while preserving the same basic story!
“It is what it is” !!
Thanks, Bill! I assume you are suggesting that “Ring Around the Rosie” doesn’t require the plague explanation; it simply is what it appears to be at first glance: a cute kids’ game. This is a good point, and it’s interesting that you used metafolklore to express it.
How is it metafolklore? Most folklorists would characterize “it is what it is” as a proverb. “It is what it is” is a certain kind of proverb, a formulaic, seemingly tautological statement. Other examples of this kind of proverb include “business is business,” “a promise is a promise,” or, as Robert Burns observed, “a man’s a man.” All of these proverbs seem to be merely statements of the obvious. But proverbs have the interesting characteristic that most of them don’t mean merely what they say; most have a figurative meaning. The figurative meaning of these proverbs saves them from tautology. That figurative meaning is some version of “one example of x should be treated as another example of x.” Business is business, so don’t expect a special discount because you’re friends with the store owner. A promise is a promise, so don’t think you can get out of yours. A man’s a man, so don’t treat rich people better than poor people.
“It is what it is” works in much the same way. “The deadline has been moved up a week. It is what it is, so don’t try to change it.” It’s a type of folklore that’s been around a long time, even though the specific phrase “it is what it is” has become popular only recently. In this case, too, the phrase is not only folklore but also metafolklore, because the “it” in the proverb refers to “Ring Around the Rosie,” another item of folklore. Thus, you have generated a metafolkloric response to an article about metafolklore. Well done!
I stumbled here by accident – isn’t the ‘net a wonderful invention? One thing I’ve wondered about in regard to this rhyme: while all humans presumably make the same sound while sneezing & have for eons, is it a coincidence that the ppl who make facial “tissue” named their product after the sound made in the third line of the RAtR chant? I think the Americanized “atchoo” sounds more like a sneeze, but the alleged orig. “atishoo” could be heard the same way. But going one step further, is it possible that “a tishoo” is simply a mnemonic for “a tissue”? I’d suggest that may be the case, esp. after reading in your exc. article that it wasn’t until after WWII that the theories sprang up connecting RAtR with the black death/plague. Oh, we knew a bit about germs, but it wasn’t until that war we pushed hard to garner yet more info to help in the fight to keep humans alive longer. So disposal tissues helped go a distance down that road. Throwing away germy, diseased paper made more sense than coming in intimate contact with said disease by hand-washing reusable cloth. (I too have read about plague coming to England’s midlands by a shipment of cloth to a tailor.) It might have been a serendipitous way in the 40s to neatly wrap up loose ends, as it were.
Yeah, I know – I’m probably full of it, but I do so enjoy pondering odd things 😉
I have always considered the rhyme to be about the plague, but being from England I may think that.
The first line is into reference of the symptoms either the rash or boil type thing.
The second is in reference to the “quacks” or doctors with the big masks with a beak looking thing on them which they would stuff with lavander and that kinda stuff because the smells weren’t all that.
The 3rd, just another symptom, you get ill and sneeze.
Lastly we all fall down, lots and lots of people died.
Only to be stopped or helped come to an end by the great fire of London, which has another rhyme to it.
Humpty dumpty is also about a cannon that fell during the civil war(the British one) and that was a cannon that was in Colchester
Can you tell me what the Jack and Jill ryme means. You know, Jack and Jill went up the hill to get a bucket of water. That would be nice to know what that means.
I have never heard of any of your versions. I am 61 yrs old and the version I grew up with was: Ring around the Rosie, pocket full of posies, Ashes, ashes , all fall down. More sinister than any of yours. I also asked friends and family and they also only know of my version
Thanks for your comment, Kat. As I pointed out, the “sinister” interpretation of the rhyme emerged in the 1950s, exactly the era when you were born and your version seemed to be standard. So it’s not a coincidence that your version (or one close to it) is the one discussed in the plague interpretation: the whole point was to use the most popular version of the rhyme to make it seem sinister. But if the plague interpretation were true, we’d expect it to apply most closely to the oldest versions, not the version that became standardized through print in the 20th century.
I grew up in the late 60s and early 70s and I don’t remember ever actually playing these games, not “Rosie,” not Snap the Whip or Red rover. We had Hide ‘n Seek, of course.
I lived in a neighborhood without that many kids in it, maybe with the burgeoning of suburbia we lost some of these traditions.
I am age 73. Here is the Ring Around the Rosie rhyme kids in my area sang.
Ring around the rosie
Pocket full of posies
E spur I spur
I was shocked when I had children to hear and see in writing “ashes, ashes, all fall down.” I laid this to its having been passed down orally through generations of children whose ancestors came from England. But I could not let go the thought that our verse must have at one time made sense. I had heard that rosie was the boil and posies in the pocket were to help the odor of the diarrhea that accompanied the plague. But what was a “spur and an “e”. Here is how I made sense of the version that we sang. considering that nobody saw it in writing and it was handed down by children.
Ring around the rosie
Pocket full of posies
Ye purge, I purge
I think this makes sense in context of the plague time and it is logical that at some point “ye” would have morphed to “e” “purge” to “spur”. I hope my version will be in the blog and that I will hear the thoughts of others on the matter.
Hi I never knew that this was about any kind of plague I just knew it as a cute kids game but this is rather interesting thanks for this.
My mother (who was born in 1913 on a dairy farm near Atlanta, and whose mom was from rural N. GA) taught it to me as
Ring around a rosy
Pocket full of posy
In my lady’s chamber
(Repeat,and change the last line to “Giddy, giddy, squat!”)
I heard it as ashes ashes we all fall down and played it that way growing up. I am now 74. My son told me when he was in his 30s that it meant that the German Children who lived near the prison camps would play it this way because the ashes in the air from the creamentories would rain ashes in the air from the dead. I guess anything can be applied if you think about.
No freedom of speech here I guess.
This is the version that I learned as a child.
Ring around the rosie
Pocket full of posies
We all fall down
As I understand the interpretation, this was written in England in the 19th century. It was during a time of economic downfall for the wealthy in England. In their castles, the owners would be in the living quarters upstairs; and, the servants would be in the downstairs basement area with the kitchen and their living quarters. When the economic downfall happened, both the rich and their servants were affected. Therefore, they all fell down. Hence, “We all fall down” in the nursery rhyme.
So it is not about the plague because of ‘telephone game theory’ – yeah, sounds great. Keep believing what you want.
Thanks for your comment, Mark. My argument is that it is (almost certainly) not about the plague, because there is no evidence that it is, and never was any evidence. I’m not sure what you mean by “telephone game theory,” which is not mentioned in the post. But if you have some evidence, I’d love to see it.
A version of the verse was published in 1855 in The Old Homestead by Ann S. Stephens of Connecticut:
A ring—a ring of roses,
Laps full of posies;
Now come and make
A ring—a ring of roses.
Later in the same chapter Stephens referred to “ring, ring a rosy” as a children’s game.
Here’s a link to more discussion.
Regarding “…nothing is more disturbing than the idea of little children playing to a description of pestilence and death…”
When I was little and the children in my neighborhood found a dead animal, we would bury it in a nearby field and go in a large ring around it (there were many of us). We would go around in a circle and sing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. Have you ever heard of this as a tradition?
Here is a weird little side note. I am married to a British man from South Shields near Newcastle upon Tyne.
As an American, when I sneeze I either “say” achoo or I make a weird loud sneezy noise.
But when my husband sneezes, he literally says “A-tishoo” (like “a tissue”).
We’ve had a long running (30 year) “discussion” over which is “normal”. He swears that this is how the British sneeze. I, of course, call it unnatural and tell him that “achoo” being a sound rather than spoken words.
Interestingly, when we sing the Ring Around The Rosie song, I sing “Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down.” But he sings “A-tishoo!, A-tishoo!, we all fall down.”
FWIW, I was born and raised in New England and my ancestors were all part of The Great Migration of the 1620s – 1670s
I want a million dollars and I think that song is cool
This is just disappointing and makes me feel a little more demonic when singing this song to my future children
very good article
The children in the recording seem to be singing “roses” and “poses”, no?
Thanks, John. If I were to transcribe it purely phonetically, it might be close to “rosa” and “poses,” that is, with a schwa in place of the long e in “rosie” and “posies.” But I think we’re just hearing their pronunciation of “rosie” and “posies,” coupled with the indistinct sound on the old disc recording. Lomax certainly thought they were singing “Rosey,” as that was in the title he gave it, and he heard it in person. And it’s unclear to me what a “pocketful o’ poses” would be, if it’s not just their way of pronouncing “posies.”
An interesting post, which seems to sum up the standard view on the matter pretty well. But I think that you’re being overly literal with the plague myth, and in doing so are missing the point of why so many find it compelling.
Rather than ask if RATR was consciously created as a commemoration of a specific event in English history, I think it’s more interesting to ask whether certain versions of the game/song have been influenced by episodes of mass horror and despair. Folk art has no specific author. Instead, it evolves continuously. There’s no point in trying to find the “original, authentic” version of RATR. There is none. The existence of older non-apocalyptic versions doesn’t negate the later versions. Curtseying to the May Queen can very easily be transformed into falling dead. Children are quite creative in this regard.
And I think it’s pretty clear that RATR is a game about death. Go watch some kids play it, or think back on your own childhood. Everyone knows that the falling down represents dying, and the boys in particular will really ham it up. It’s not scary dying. It’s play dying, with laughing and giggling. (What’s particularly interesting about RATR, is that the object of the game is to all die at precisely the same time).
And many versions of the song also quite clearly convey the same idea. Take the standard English version with the sneezing. Everyone associates sneezing with being sick. It doesn’t take too much imagination to hear “sneeze, sneeze, we all fall down” and think of an epidemic of some sort that is wiping out the town. The American version with the “ashes, ashes” line conveys a melancholic despair. The wild differences in specific subject matter (illness vs fire), actually underline their commonality: mass calamity.
I grew up in Italy, and they have a version of RATR there too. The game itself is identical, but the song is totally different, although it’s sung to the same tune. But the song is still apocalyptic, seemingly dealing with earthquakes, which are quite common in Italy. So whoever “translated” the song into Italian picked up the important part, namely large scale destruction.
I think it’s natural to then look at the details of the song and try to find some clue that might tie it to some specific event. Of course these are going to be inconsistent with each other. It’s various people saying maybe it’s this, or perhaps that. (The version I originally heard, which I’ve never seen anywhere else, was that the “rosy” was the bonfire that was producing the ashes). None of these speculations can be proved or disproved, there’s just no information to go on. And they’re also unlikely to be accurate. Folk traditions provide us with a wonderful window into the past, but it’s generally not a literal one. Rather, it’s figurative and emotional.
Rather than doing a binary debunking of this myth, I think it would be better to say that there’s no specific evidence that ties RATR to any particular event. But yes, it seems quite plausible that many of the popular versions today do obliquely reflect tragedies of some sort. And the various plagues that devastated Europe may have figured in this, but we don’t really know one way or the other.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I don’t really disagree with most of what you said. I was just pointing out that there is nothing tying it to the plague, either in the fourteenth or seventeenth centuries. I think this goes beyond “we don’t really know one way or the other,” however, given that there is no evidence of the game at all for hundreds of years after those plagues. We could just as well say it refers to Vikings burning a village, or the building of Stonehenge (back then, maybe pink flowers grew on Salisbury Plain), or to any other event that catches our fancy. We shouldn’t just say that “we don’t really know one way or the other” if they are true. That’s equally true of any story anyone makes up.
I also don’t think it’s very clear that the game is traditionally “about death.” It certainly may be now that this interpretation has reached children. But the first evidence of this interpretation is from adults, not kids. Still, it’s certainly true, as you’re suggesting, that modern versions of it are being performed by kids who are aware of the plague interpretation. However, it’s also notable that the obvious context of many traditional versions–kissing games and mock courtship–is almost never mentioned in popular interpretations, just the plague story.
Finally, I wasn’t saying there’s no compelling reason for people to look for such details in the song. In fact I highlighted some of those reasons in the post. The entire process of creating metafolklore springs from our need to explain such details. As I suggested in the post, “folklorists know better than anyone the fascination with things that are older than they seem, and with ‘extraordinary origins of everyday things.'”
Our version of ring around the roses in the mountains of NC (1950 /60’s) – 3rd/4th verses – “red bird,blue bird stoop”
When I was a student at BYU I did a project on South Indian folklore. I can’t remember the publication but I came across a Tamil folktale that bore a stricking resemblance to the folktale from the South Eastern United States, Old Dry Fry. In the South Indian tale, forgive me because it’s been some time since I read it last, a man is killed and villagers pass him around to avoid their responsibility for his accidental death. The similarities between two folk tales in two different areas of the world facinated me; I always wondered how the tale traveled across the world.
I believe that ring around the rosary (a rosary of 5 decades of Hail Marys and Our Fathers ), pocket full of posey (flowers) atishoo (Holy Spirit) atishoo (Holy Spirit) we all fall down (in reverence) is the meaning that makes the most sense. England according to Anne Vail was incredibly dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The English rose came from dedication to Mary. Knights went to battle with a rose on their armpit to indicate they were fighting for Mary. “In Germany they sing “ringel, ringel, rosen crantz” ring a ring a rosary. pg 47 The story of the Rosary. This makes so much sense. Families in the midst of their grief would not have encouraged this darker interpretation of this rhyme. They would have encouraged children growing to love the rosary. It is hard to conceptualize in today’s culture how much in England’s early history existed such a powerful and sting devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Eaton was founded in honor of Our Lady by Henry II. Shrines to Our Lady were numerous and largely destroyed in latter centuries. As Anne Vail states, “In the early centuries, prayer was held to be a physical as well as a mental exercise. The early Syrian hermits repeatedly threw themselves to the ground during their prayer. Saint Louis, King of France knelt down every day fifty times while saying “Ave Maria. The Irish monks of Saint Patrick prayed with arms outstretched and the original recitation of Our Lady’s Psalter entailed fifty Aves, each accompanied by a genuflection.
Thanks Melissa. It’s not impossible, but there are four weaknesses to this theory.
(1) There is no evidence this rhyme existed before the 19th century, but the theory relies on references to practices in “early history” and “early centuries.”
(2) The rhyme is rarely if ever collected in English with the word “rosary.” (“Rosenkranz” does mean “rosary” in German, but originally means “rose wreath,” so there’s no proof the German version is religious.)
(3) “Atishoo” has nothing obvious to do with the Holy Spirit
(4) “Falling down” in reverence is farfetched if one’s only evidence comes from “early Syrian hermits.” We would ideally want evidence from 19th century England.
in the early 1300s josie was the first recorded name to be dead from the illness. I also do belive that this song was also sung in the 1300s in the song you will hear “ring around the poise bottle full of posie all the girls in our town ring for little josie.also she was one of the youngest. now can you give me a reason that this is not true.if so prove it to me.
WE sang it in toddle groups (just outside London)
Fishes in the water
Fishes in the sea
We all jump up
with a one two three.
Heard or read this connected to idea of clean water / safe to eat food?
Mr. Stephen Winick:
I read the original article with keen interest and continued on reading the comments. This will sound strange, but as a lover of words and language I find your writing enthralling. Your explanations, word usage, etc. are such a pleasure to read.
I was raised in the Deep South by people of Scots-Irish and German ancestry. We were taught this song as Ring around the rosie
Pockets full of posies
All the kids would sit down and the last one went into the circle.
There were 2 versions:one that never ended and one that had a winner. In the first person into the circle would be replaced by the loser of the next round so there was always an equal amount of kids playing. The second involved keeping all losers in the circle until there was only one-the winner. The guinea part? We had guineas (a chicken sort of bird that eats fleas and ticks from the yard) or it could be about money. My Germans were the many Palatines who were swindled out of their savings and abandoned in London on their way to America. Maybe they incorporated it into their version. It was 1760. Who knew?
this kinda dark tho
I performed in a play titled “Games Children Play” in the early 70s at Ohio University. THE GRAD SCHOOL playwright implied that many children’s poems and fairy tales had sexual themes. He added music to
“Hickety Pickety, my Black Hen,
She Laid eggs for gentlemen,
Gentlemen come every day,
To see what eggs my hen doeth lay.”
And the actresses did a bump and grind in the production.
I had never heard that rhyme before, now I wonder if Miller (the playwright) made it up
Or changed the words? ANYONE KNOW?
He didn’t make it up. That’s a real nursery rhyme. The words vary from version to to version but your playwright didn’t do anything to increase the sexual imagery, so I imagine it’s a version he found in a book. Find one version in “The Little Mother Goose” at this link.
What about this? https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/ring-around-rosie/
Thanks, Big Shoe. As you can see, Snopes agrees with me and uses more or less the same reasoning and many of the same sources. This is not surprising, since folkorists have been saying it since the 1950s. The creators of Snopes are not trained folklorists, but they have worked with and consulted folklorists since the site was created.
There are so many different versions of this rhyme that, for all we know, this rhyme/game could’ve been made on the spot by a group of children’s parents. Maybe they needed kids out of the way so they can talk about, I don’t know, how are they going ration food this winter or something. And means completely nothing. But, we’ll never know.
Can’t taste our snacks
Have to wear our masks
We all fall down….
The version I know and grew up singing goes like this:
Pockets full of posies,
Well all fall down!
Yeah, pretty creepy, right? To me it´s basically screaming: DEATH
I have read now in at least 2 Wikipedia stories of the Black
death that was called The Bubonic Plague, NOT the Pneumonic Plaque, as was written.
Thanks for your comment. Bubonic plague and pneumonic plague are the same disease, caused by the same bacterium. The adjectives “bubonic” and “pneumonic” describe the clinical presentation of the disease in a given patient as well as the area of the body affected and the way it’s spread. Both “The Black Death” and “The Great Plague” included both bubonic and pneumonic forms of the plague. No one in this article states otherwise, and no one states the Black Death was exclusively or primarily pneumonic plague.
Since I mentioned pneumonic and not bubonic plague when talking about the Great Plague of 1665, I’ve made an update above to say “bubonic and pneumonic plague.”
The reason people make a distinction between bubonic and pneumonic plague when talking about the rhyme is that the words are specifically said to refer to the symptoms. Since the two forms of plague have different symptoms, it’s very telling that the general words of the rhyme can be interpreted to apply to both.
another version is-
Ring around a rosie
pockets full of posie
we all fall down
i learned “ring around the rosies, pockets full of posies, ashes to ashes, we all fall down!
There used to be a popular brand of perfume called
“Ashes of Roses” – somewhere arond 1930 – 40ies,
very expensive, and very popular…
The actual text:
Ring around the Rosey
Pocket full of poseys
We all fall down.
The version I heard referred to the lyrics, “Ashes, ashes, all fall down.”
See, it was ashes what was used to cover up the dead, to keep the disease from spreading.
This story is too compelling to just surrender. Can’t Tim Burton make it real?
OMG I am scared now AHHHHH
OMG I am scared now AHHHHH
but it is also cool
I think that is a good article! I just hate the idea of thinking that children like me did that./10 years old in 5 grade
omg this is crazy and real i heard about this in first grade then never played again bc im traumatized and i played it EVERYDAY when i was five years old lol
Ring Around The Rosie from 1939 Got Stuck In My Head At School Today! I LIKE IT
Tissues weren’t invented till 1924, the Black Death pandemic happened in the 1300s and the swine flu pandemic happened in 1918, i doesn’t make a sense that the rhyme was to symbolize those pandemics, A-tishoo! A-tishoo! is just a rhyme lyric, nothing to do with facial tissues invented only in 1924 long after the rhym was written and those pandemics happened. The association of the rhyme with the pandemic is an urban legend that didn’t exist till the 21st century, and people during pandemic times like to associate all sorts of stuffs unrelated to the event with the event to make it look more tragic (which it is, but people love to make things overly dramatic and symbolic), just saying.
It sounds like we mostly agree, wfank. However, as the post points out, the association of the rhyme with the plagues or pandemics definitely existed by the 20th century. The “a-tishoo” is thought to represent the sound of a sneeze, not to have anything to do with facial tissues, and –it does not, in fact, rhyme with anything in the poem.
This has been a fantastic read. Your comment and analysis of “it is what it is” was excellent. Thank you!
Has anyone ever heard of this: ‘Oh, Oh, Oh,my big toe, fell in the sugar bowl and I didnt know.’ It was, I was told, related to some sort of health crisis in Scotland in 19th/20th century.
Wow your blowing my mind. I feel like I’m discovering Napoleon actually was of average height again lol
I have always known the version going:
Ring around the rosie
Pockets full of posies
We all fall down
So I’m not even 15 but I’m very curious about this because I already knew that “ ashes ashes “ ment the ashes of dead bodies and I knew that “ we all fall down “ ment that we all die and I got very curious about what the beginning ment so now I know thank you so much
I heard that the song about the London bridge is about putting the children in the walls when they where building the bridge.
I’m almost 80years and we played this game at school in Australia and we sang:Ring a ring of Rosie’s a pocket full of posies a tissue a tissue we all fall down*
The king is in his counting house,counting out his money,
The Queen is in the parlour eating bread and honey
The maid is in the garden hanging out the clothes,down comes a blackbird to peck off her nose!
It seems to me as if at least 2 nursery rhymes have been ‘sanitized’ to make them more acceptable for little children to sing?
My late Wife, an anti-Apartheid activist and Physician, left South Africa as the country was locked in horrible violence & strife.
She was adamant that the lyrics that she learned as a young child in the early 1950s were as follows:
Ring around the Roses (Rosie’s)
Pocket Full of Posies
Ashes, Ashes We All Fall Down
Where did “a-tishoo” come from?
And “roses are a euphemism for deadly rashes”?
The South African version seems to hit the nail on the head in describing The Plague? The ashes were common from the bodies and clothing of the 25 to 50 million dead being necessarily burned. Hence the “falling down” meaning death would be a logical fate?
The second nursery rhyme that also seems to have been censored or altered to be more palatable for little children is “Pop Goes the Weasel”.
The interpretations that I have been reading online sometimes border on being far fetched to me?
“Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.”
Again from my Dear Wife. (South African or Afrikaans FACT)
The tuppenny or two penny rice was used because it was only worth 1/120th of a pound sterling. The sweet treacle syrup was also considered inexpensive. The two cooked together made a sweet, sticky treat to the large outbreak of weasels (some say rats?).
The purpose was to get the oversized population of weasels to eat the tuppenny rice/treacle syrup mixture.
The weasels would eat & eat & eat this mixture until stuffed. Then the rice would expand in their stomachs.
POP GOES THE WEASEL!
Pop was/is British slang for Pop (Father)having to pawn his cheaply made weasel suit jacket/coat because he drank away the family’s money seems like a pretty big stretch when searching for meaning to the lyrics of this nursery rhyme?
Why the two penny rice & treacle then? What does a purposely cheap rice & treacle mixture have to do with “Pop/Father” drinking the family’s money away & then then pawning/poppinghis suit fashioned from weasels? Did Pop spend the money intended for the tuppenny rice & treacle that his dirt poor family were forced to eat? I don’t know if this was a common food staple for the English people of days gone by?
Similarly, “Pop Goes the Weasel” being a formally declared song (by Queen Victoria) to be danced to at Balls also seems to be a weak argument. This song played at formal balls had no lyrics other than “Pop Goes the Weasel” shouted out intermittently.
HOW did this become directly related to a children’s nursery rhyme is beyond me?
Please add a comment setting me straight if you have some reasonable rebuttals that are NOT from MASS REPETITION IS NOW TRUTH websites like Wiki.
My Apologies for the Diatribe,
Best Regards & Good Wishes!
“The Happy Hooligans!”
Craik, Saskatchewan, Canada
November 10th, 2021.
I enjoyed reading the information you have given in this article. I always had a disbelief in the claimed ‘plague origin’ of this rhyme. I had no easy way to do the research to debunk the plague-origin explanation, so this disbelief stayed as a niggling thought in a back corner of my brain. Your article here has helped me to progress to a much stronger confidence that the plague-origin explanation was concocted out of whole-cloth not too many decades ago. The biggest problem that I’ve always had is the claim that this rhyme came out of either the plague of the 1300’s, or the plague of the 1600’s. The English language of the 1300’s (i.e. Middle English) doesn’t seem to fit the language pattern contained in this rhyme.
(e.g. Chaucer – The Miller’s Tale)
The Reve answerde and seyde, “Stynt thy clappe!
Lat be thy lewed dronken harlotrye.
It is a synne and eek a greet folye
To apeyren any man, or hym defame,
And eek to bryngen wyves in swich fame.
Thou mayst ynogh of othere thynges seyn.”
Likewise, the English language of the 1600’s (i.e. Elizabethan, or ‘King James Bible’ English) doesn’t seem to fit the language pattern contained in this rhyme.
Thank you for informative article.
I have been working on a series of essays for some time concerning the French financial system in the late eighteenth century and I was hoping to find a song, ballad, riddle (or any folkloric equivalent to an English nursery rhyme) dating from the late-eighteenth century which might directly or indirectly reference the “Trente Demoiselles de Genève…”, a French financial annuity scheme established by the Monarchy in the 1760s, which by 1782 represented more than 30% of the French government’s budget: i.e. references to “Maidens and Numbers” or “Maidens and pies” etc.
I had hoped there might exist a version of “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” from the late-eighteenth century that had been modified to reference this annuity scheme but to date I have not found any.
Any assistance in this matter would be appreciated.
The way I’ve always heard it was
Ring around the Rosie: marking the spots on the bodies to count them.
Pocket full of posies: plauge doctor’s masks were intentionally made so the doctors could put flowers or incense in it.
Ashes, ashes: the burning of the bodies.
We all fall down: everybody’s dieing/dead.
I’ve heard of a few Different ones but the two I am most curious about are the ones that follow The first one is peter Peter pumpkin eater I heard it was about infidelity where apparently his wife was going to leave him for a secret lover and he resolved the problem by murdering her and hiding the body in a pumpkin shell the second one Mary Mary quite contrary (refers to Tudor Queen Mary of England) how does your garden Grow (Garden is an old English word for cemetery queen Mary was executing a lot of people thus growing the cemeteries or her garden) silver bells and cockleshells (Silver bells and cockleshells are mediaeval torture device is specifically used on man I’m sure you can imagine why) and pretty maids all in a row (it refers to a type of Of beheading device known as the maiden purely because it was reserved for women as there was a wooden platform attached to The Chopping block for them to lay down on so that men couldn’t look up their skirts when they were beheaded)
I hope you can shed some light on these nursery rhymes for me I also know that Mary Mary quite contrary is also connected apparently to a witch Who murderers children according to some people as well as Mary Queen of Scots
i just cant believe that something so dark is hat children sing now!
Thanks for your comment, Adina. To be clear, I’m pointing out that the children’s song is NOT dark, and it’s not really about the plague. So I don’t believe it either!
As a child, I sang this song with other Catholic school children. A sister said that during the plague, children held hands and danced in a circle around a “Rosie” which referred to a fire. They had pockets full of flowers or posies. Ashes are ashes as in Ash Wednesday.
Throughout most of human history, children have had to survive deplorable conditions. Is it possible that children still managed to play amid horrid sufferings and loss?
The origin and age of the rhyme make no difference to its meaning. Folklorists speak of how stories spread and change through time and geography. For living people, any prior meaning of a story is academic and insignificant. Now that millions of people automatically–perhaps instinctively–interpret its varying details as depictions of the plague, that is PRECISELY what it means to them. Stop trying to tell people that their interpretations are incorrect; that’s like finding out that the model for the Mona Lisa had eaten onions before posing, so her expression probably shows an acute attack of gastric gas. Leave interpretation to the reader or viewer. (Personally, I believe the crows in the sky and fallow fields of the Greenaway illustration prove “mention” of the plague interpretation far in advance of what the researchers have found appearing in print text.)
Thanks for your comment, Dan. You make an important point, and in fact it’s only because this story is now part of the meaning of the rhyme that folklorists are interested in it. That’s what makes it metafolklore–the fact that it’s ABOUT other folklore and therefore affects the meaning of that folklore. But this doesn’t mean that we have to accept the story is true. Most people don’t claim only that the rhyme means those things, but that it means those things because the rhyme originated during the plague and referred originally to it. While it may mean those things TO THEM, it’s still a false claim that the rhyme existed during the plague. The question of current meaning and earlier meaning, and the ultimate question of origin, are all different questions and shouldn’t be conflated.
Many Shakespeare deniers believe that the hyphen sometimes printed in Shakespeare’s name on the first folios proves he was a front for the Earl of Oxford; others believe it proves he was a front for Francis Bacon, and still others that it proves he was really Henry Neville. Each of these groups has many other clues and bits of evidence taken from Shakespeare’s plays that they claim prove their idea is right, just like the “clues” people have found in “Ring Around the Rosie.” Yet all the different Shakespeare authorship ideas can’t be right. Those beliefs are part of the MEANING of the plays (for some of us), but they’re still not true beliefs–they couldn’t all be true. So scholars will continue to tell them that their interpretations are incorrect, even while folklorists may study the stories themselves as folklore about Oxford, Bacon, and Neville.
This is not a purely academic exercise. Folklorists have been involved in international panels studying conspiracies like QAnon, which use exactly the same kind of reasoning as the plague story, and the Shakespeare stories, looking for “hidden clues” to the meaning they want to prove in communicative acts that did not carry those meanings at the time. Was “cheese pizza” really code for “child pornography” in emails written by government officials? No, of course not, just as “ashes” didn’t mean cremation and “posies” didn’t mean a rash when kids played “Ring Around the Rosie” in the 19th century. Does “cheese pizza” mean that to QAnon theorists? Sure, but why should we support that? Is the Pizzagate story part of those emails’ meaning now to our culture in general? Yes, it’s part of the meaning, but we have to understand the difference between that and the claims being true. We shouldn’t accept such false stories as true, just because they’re now “part of the meaning” of our lives.
Conspiracy thinking can become a habit, but so can critical thinking. Critically examining the evidence behind the plague story follows the same process as critically examining the evidence for Shakespeare authorship controversies, climate change denial, and QAnon conspiracies. Folklorists among others think such critical thinking is only becoming more important in our contemporary media environment.
That so many new comments to this years-old post came after the corona/covid pandemic absolutely fascinates me. The comment above, whether snark or contemporary parody, “Can’t taste our snacks / Have to wear our masks” is just the cherry on top.
Well when i was in kindergarten we hear the version where it goes “ring around a rosie, pocketful of posies ashes ashes we all fall down.” well they put rings around roses to give honor to those who died to the plague, pocket full of posies they would put posies inside their pockets to keep the smell away because the posies had a strong scent, ashes ashes we all fall down which was signifying that a lot of people were dying because of the plague.
That’s an interesting one, Neiya, because “they put rings around roses to give honor to those who died of the plague” is one I’ve never heard before. One interesting thing about “plague theory” stories is that they don’t agree about what all the “clues” mean, but they all have the same conclusion!
Alternate verbiage cannot establish any truth about anything.
What if WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF EVIDENT was really WE HOLD THESE POSITS TO BE UNDEFINED?
When I was in primary school, we sang ring a ring a Rosie’s, a pocket full of posies, a tishoo a tishoo we all fall down, down at the bottom of the deep blue sea, catching fishies for my tea, by one, by two, by three.
Interesting. I actually have a podcast about parricide (Parricide Podcast – kids who kill their parents) and we were drawn to this song. We use it as our theme song – it really spoke to me. Childhood – failures of children and their parents – but when we fall we all fall down together. Thanks for a fabulous article!
I always sang it all the time when I was only 5 years old. How we sang it was: Ring around the Rosies, pockets full of posies, ashes-ashes, we all fall down.
To me now it sounded like they were covering up the dead and there ashes all went missing.
Maybe, but it appears the different versions have different meanings. Perhaps the one most of us all grew up with is a version that was written to be referring to the plague.
It’s not impossible, but there is no evidence of it. Like other versions, the version most of us grew up with long predates the story that it refers to the plague.
oh this is good blog
never realized how cool research is
I was told by one of my “elders” when I was a young adult that the words were “Ring Around The rosey (the gurney that an afflicted child of the black plague laid on); a pocket full of posies (flower petals a doctor kept in his pocket), Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down. The doctor would go around the child on the gurney and drop the flower petals as he walked around to help extinguish the smell of the dying. And ashes, ashes referred to the fact that we will all die and they will bury our ashes.
This is an absolutely fascinating article and thread that has been running for years. I was born and raised in the 1950s in the Midwest. I did not first see or meet a person of African-American descent until I was in elementary school. The version of this nursery rhyme that my peers andI learned was “Ring around the Rosies ,pockets full of posies, last one downs a N***** baby.” I think that supports that over time, culture impacts on what is taught to children. Thank you sir for this wonderful article and for stimulating such a fascinating conversational thread!
It was fascinating to read the article and all the comments! It was was odd I never saw my version of the song here. I learned it as: Ring around the Rosie, pocket full of posies. Hush-a, hush-a, we all fall down. I’ve always believed the ‘hush-a’ was for be quiet, people are dying. Yes, I think the verse did originate from the plague through word of mouth, generation to generation and took on different words, meanings depending on the country and era. It doesn’t need to be written down for proof. I don’t think the writer should be debunking the thoughts of others.
I don’t know how old this blog is, but it doesn’t mention the version I’ve heard all my life: “Ring around the rosies, pockets full of posies, ashes ashes, we all fall down!” My friends and I thought it meant, the kids were all dancing with posies in their pockets when all of a sudden their village started burning down, indicating the ashes and the falling down.
I was never allowed to sing this because we were told that this was a song that refers to the Jewish children during the holocaust in concentration camps.
That’s very interesting, Wendy! The rhyme long predates the Holocaust, of course, but this is consistent with other interpretations of elements like “ashes” and “falling down.”
Just a question, would it be possible not to just talk about the plague but 1666 in general?
“Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies” was about the plague and “ashes ashes, we all fall down” was about the great fire of 1666?
I loved this article! I remember hearing the “plague theory” in highschool and my teacher told us it was created because of the plague. But your explanation makes much more sense! I do wonder where the rhyme originated and why and even where, I wonder if we’ll ever know? This was a fascinating and excellent read! I enjoyed it very much and it was incredibly enlightening and informative, so, thank you for teaching me something new today! Thank you for writing this, I look forward to reading your other articles, so fascinating!
The plague theory interpretation always seemed both interesting and implausible to me. To me it seems more likely to have been a dance and song imported from another culture with mangled versions of some original words confusing us . My wife pointed out that “ashes, ashes” resembles French “au chaise, au chaise” meaning “to the chairs, to the chairs” and the dance itself somewhat resembles “musical chairs.” Do “pocket full of posies” and “rosie” have close French equivalents that would make sense in a musical chairs song?
This song takes me back when I was a little girl, i would sing this song with my friends and cousins a lot of times during recess or when we would get together. We would say
“Ring a round a rosie”
“A pocket full of posey”
“We all fall down”
Sometimes we would say dashes, but since today that word terrified me because I finally got to look up the meaning and history as to what it means, why would they allow this to be sung by kids not in my years because we didn’t have the technology we have today so we can look up anything at anywhere or time. It’s just sad after all these years to reveal finally what it truly means and in the early 2000s in my recess time me and my friends/cousins would play a long to this song. It’s very sad parents in the early 2000s should’ve known the true meaning.
See but I still don’t understand where this originated from! But thank you for this informational and studious article, Stephen Winick!
I have wondered about the origin of Rock a bye Baby, having heard 2 conflicting explanations. One describes
a Native American practice of hanging a cradle board from a tree branch while the mother worked, the other that it is a veiled British political ditty expressing hope that the newborn heir would die. Your thoughts?
Iona and Peter Opie note both those interpretations but do not endorse either of them. I would tend to agree. There is no evidence at all linking it to either Native Americans or politics. While either interpretation could in theory be true, we have the same problem with each of these claims as with “Ring Around the Rosie”: if there was evidence behind either claim, why can’t anyone just produce the evidence? And if there isn’t any evidence, why believe the claim?
I think it’s possible that many adaptations of the rhyme can be true. Perhaps it existed many years before in variations and the children around during the plague adapted it to that situation. As others did hence the common tune and rhyme just recycled. So it can be true there is a plague version along with many others. I don’t think anyone can really say it’s true or not true …
As a child in western Canada in the late 1950’s and early ‘60’s we sang Ring around the rosies, pocket full epoxies, HUSHA HUSHA (at which time we would drop hands and shhhhhh with our index finger to our lips) we all fall down!
Last to fall would have to then be in the centre for the next round. The last to fall in the next round would take the centre place. We just kept track of who had most played in the centre and they would have to convince their mother to provide the popsicles for the next day ♀️