Poetry Kaleidoscope: Guide to Poetry

Nursery Rhyme

Mares Eat Oats

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A nursery rhyme is a traditional song or poem taught to young children, originally in the nursery. Learning such verse assists in the development of vocabulary, and several examples deal with rudimentary counting skills. ("Eeny, meeny, miny, moe" is an example of a counting-out game.) In addition, specific actions, motions, or dances are often associated with particular songs.

"Hey Diddle Diddle" is a popular nursery rhyme. Hey Diddle Diddle" is a popular nursery rhyme.

Many cultures (though not all; see below) feature children's songs and verses that are passed down by oral tradition from one generation to the next (either from parent to child, or from older children to younger children), however the term "nursery rhyme" generally refers to those of European origin. The best known examples are English and originated in or since the 17th century. Some however are substantially older. "Baa, Baa, Black Sheep" exists in written records as far back the Middle Ages. Arguably the most famous collection of nursery rhymes is that of Mother Goose. Some well known nursery rhymes originated in the United States, such as "Mary had a little lamb".

Generally nursery rhymes are innocent doggerel, though some scholars have attempted to link their meaning to events in European or English history. Urban legends abound with regard to some of the rhymes, though most of these have been discredited. Some of the more plausible explanations indicate that some rhymes may have been contemporary social or political satire. ("Hey Diddle Diddle" is one example, the "dish" and "spoon" possibly being nicknames for the figures involved in a sex scandal in the court of English queen, Elizabeth I.)

"Ring-Around-the-Rosie" (alternatively "Ring-a-ring of Rosies") is popularly believed to be a metaphorical reference to the Great Plague, although this has been widely discredited, particularly as none of the "symptoms" described by the poem even remotely correlate to those of the Bubonic plague, and the first record of the rhyme's existence was not until 1881.

A credible interpretation of "Pop Goes the Weasel" is that it is about silk weavers taking their shuttle or bobbin (known as a "weasel"), to a pawnbrokers to obtain money for drinking. It is possible that the "eagle" mentioned in the song's third verse refers to The Eagle freehold pub along Shepherdess Walk in London, which was established as a music hall in 1825 and was rebuilt as a public house in 1901. This public house bears a plaque with this interpretation of the nursery rhyme and the pub's history. Alternatively, the term "weasel" might be Cockney rhyming slang for a coat ("weasel and stoat" = "coat"), and the coat itself was pawned.

An amusing and ironic accidental hoax involving the rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence" was perpetrated on the Urban Legends Reference Pages.

Scholars occasionally think they have "all" nursery rhymes written down, or know the last time that a rhyme was in use (some fall out of favor). However, as nursery rhymes are mainly an oral tradition, nursery rhymes will surface anew (see Bill Bryson's book Made in America : An Informal History of the English Language in the United States for an excellent example).

There are some indigenous peoples which consider music sacred, so that only elder men may sing songs, and the songs are taught during sacred rituals in adulthood. It is forbidden for women or children to sing. Hence, these cultures do not have these kinds of songs.

List of nursery rhymes

Popular culture

Stand up comic Andrew Dice Clay has performed "vulgar" versions of old standards in his act. The humor was often based on shock value and abrupt resolutions which identified a more practical or realistic result. As an example, in Clay's version of "Jack and Jill", Jill is implied to be a prostitute:

Jack and Jill went up the hill,
Both with a buck and a quarter.
Jill came down with two-fifty.

Other rhymes Clay has modified are "Three Blind Mice", "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", "The Little Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe", "Little Boy Blue", "Hickory Dickory Dock", and "Little Jack Horner".

See also


Poetry Guide Home | Up | Classification of Rhymes | Rhyme Scheme | Chain Rhyme | Eye Rhyme | Feminine Rhyme | Half Rhyme | Holorime | Internal Rhyme | Nursery Rhyme | Pararhyme | Sprung Rhythm | Triolet | Pruning Poem

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