What does your favorite nursery rhyme really mean?

What does your favorite nursery rhyme really mean?

Nursery rhymes are part of everyday life and are passed on from generation to generation. However, it is remarkable how little we know about their origins.

The famous children’s song Humpty Dumpty was the center of a recent Twitter storm after an author suggested the song’s main character wasn’t an egg but a cannon in the English Civil War.

Now, a nursery rhyme expert reveals the truth behind all of our most treasured classics — and the key is to examine the meaning of the words and the actual lines when they were first printed.

In his new book Cracking Humpty Dumpty – an investigative trail of favorite children rehymes – Hastings writer Tim Devlin debunks other myths surrounding these comforting rhymes – including that ‘Ring a Ring O’Roses’ was about the great plague of 1665.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to get a bottle of water. Or have you? In fact, they don’t seem to have done it at all

Tim told FEMAIL: “Nursery rhymes have always fascinated me.

“I started looking into them after hearing someone sing Ring a Ring o’Roses during the pandemic and I quickly realized this had nothing to do with the plague, as is commonly believed.

“In fact, that was a theory that was first invented in 1951.”

He added: “Almost everyone in the English-speaking world knows a nursery rhyme. But they don’t know what they mean.

“Some are nonsense. Some are whimsical and some are dark. But they help young children to speak and read and have become part of the fabric of life and our social history.”

Here Tim shares the meaning behind nursery rhymes you’ve sung a thousand times but never knew their true meaning…

jack and jill

“That was the biggest shock for me,” said Tim.

“A drawing with the oldest surviving version of the rhyme shows two young men named Jack and Gill (not Jill). The best theory is that it refers to the evil King John, who lost his crown when the Pope took it from him because he refused to accept his companion (nicknamed Gill) as the new Archbishop of Canterbury.

“The old man who had just died was called ‘Walter’ and Jack and Gill went up the hill (to visit the Pope in Rome) to get the ‘pallium’ – a traditional robe – from Walter.”

Mary Mary Quite Contrary is a nursery rhyme about Mary II, the wife of William III, who was a brilliant gardener

Mary Mary Quite Contrary is a nursery rhyme about Mary II, the wife of William III, who was a brilliant gardener

Mary Mary Quite the contrary

Tim explained: “Some have thought this referred to Bloody Mary or Mary Queen of Scots. But both of them don’t fit into the rhyme as they weren’t avid gardeners.

However, Mary II, wife of William III, was a brilliant gardener who transformed Hampton Court and the gardens of other places abroad. Silverbells and small mussels are exotic plants.

“In the earliest version of the poem there is one line: ‘Cuckolds all in a row’. It seems nonsense, but Mary believed she had been scammed, which is a brilliant story.’

While Humpty Dumpty is often portrayed as an egg, author Tim Devlin claims the rhyme is about an exotic cocktail

While Humpty Dumpty is often portrayed as an egg, author Tim Devlin claims the rhyme is about an exotic cocktail

Humpty Dumpty

“I always thought it was about Richard III because of the line ‘all the king’s horse and all the king’s men,'” explained Tim.

“But this line was added to the rhyme in 1844, many years after it first appeared. Humpty Dumpty wasn’t a cannon either.

“In fact, it was the name of an exotic cocktail made from brewed beer and brandy that was drunk by gypsies. And it was this drink that fell off the wall and couldn’t be put back together.’

Ring A Ring O'Roses is a children's song commonly associated with the plague and inspired Tim to write his book after hearing it sung during the Covid lockdown

Ring A Ring O’Roses is a children’s song commonly associated with the plague and inspired Tim to write his book after hearing it sung during the Covid lockdown

Ring A Ring O’Roses

“People think this is about the plague, maybe understandable as it refers to people falling and sneezing,” said Tim.

“In fact, the earliest versions contain nothing about sneezing. However, it’s all about falling down.

“It is indeed a merry no-brainer like a musical chair that can be traced back to the US and Germany in the 18th century long before it came to Britain.”

Little Bo-Peep isn't about sheep, it's about smugglers operating along the East Sussex coast

Little Bo-Peep isn’t about sheep, it’s about smugglers operating along the East Sussex coast

Little Bo Peep

Tim said, “Forget sheep. The sheep were actually smugglers.

‘Little Bo-Peep was the name of a customs house at St Leonards-on-Sea in East Sussex, and the customs officers’ name was Bo-Peep.

“They’ve lost their sheep (smugglers) and a local prankster joked, ‘Leave them alone and they’ll come home and get their tails (booty) behind them.’

This funny poem contains the rhyme When the girls came out to play, Georgie Porgy ran away (pictured)

This funny poem contains the rhyme When the girls came out to play, Georgie Porgy ran away (pictured)

Georgie Porgie

“This could be about George IV who built the Brighton Pavilion. He loved puddings and cakes and was very fat,” said Tim.

“He had such bad breath that he made the girls cry when he kissed them. Good guess, but wrong.

“The poem originally began as Rowley Powley Pudding and Pie. It was about Charles II, who probably kissed more girls than Georgie and had more illegitimate children.

“He was nicknamed Old Rowley after his favorite racehorse who was brilliant at stud.”