1. BAA, BAA, BLACK SHEEP (1731)
Though most scholars agree that “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” is about the Great Custom, a tax on wool that was introduced in 1275, its use of the color black and the word “master” led some to wonder whether there was a racial message at its center. Its political correctness was called into question yet again in the latter part of the 20th century, with some schools banning it from being repeated in classrooms, and others simply switching out the word “black” for something deemed less offensive. In 2011, news.com.au reported on the proliferation of “Baa, Baa Rainbow Sheep” as an alternative.
2. GOOSEY GOOSEY GANDER (1784)
It’s hard to imagine that any rhyme with the phrase “goosey goosey” in its title could be described as anything but feelgood. But it’s actually a tale of religious persecution, during the days when Catholic priests would hide themselves in order to say their Latin-based prayers, a major no-no at the time—not even in the privacy of one’s own home. In the original version, the narrator comes upon an old man “who wouldn’t say his prayers. So I took him by his left leg. And threw him down the stairs.” Ouch!
3. JACK AND JILL (1765)
Jack and Jill went up the hill/To fetch a pail of water/Jack fell down and broke his crown/And Jill came tumbling after
Why would anyone go up a hill for water when water travels downhill…unless this really isn’t a tale of liquid refreshment and unsure footing. One common interpretation is that it’s about the beheading of King Louis XVI (“lost his crown”) and his queen Marie Antoinette (“who came tumbling after”) during the French Revolution. But the small town of Kilmersdon, England proudly claims (to the point they make it a tourist attraction) that the poem is about a couple in 1697 who used to sneak up the hill for some alone time (making “fetch a pail of water” one of the more disturbing euphemisms for “sex”). The story goes that the woman got pregnant, the man died from a falling rock, and then the woman died in childbirth, thus resulting in one of the most depressing nursery rhymes ever since “I Shot Little Jack Horner Just to Watch Him Die.”
4. LONDON BRIDGE IS FALLING DOWN (1744)
In 2006, Fergie got saucy with some of this classic kid tune’s lyrics. But the original song wasn’t much better. Depending on whom you ask, “London Bridge is Falling Down” could be about a 1014 Viking attack, child sacrifice, or the normal deterioration of an old bridge.
The child sacrifice theory? That’s an idea that is also often debated), but the theory goes that in order to keep London Bridge upright, its builders believed that it must be built on a foundation of human sacrifice, and that those same humans—mostly children—would help to watch over the bridge and maintain its sturdiness. Which we’re pretty sure isn’t a practice they teach you in architecture school.
5. MARY, MARY, QUITE CONTRARY (1744)
“Contrary” is one way to describe a murderous psychopath. This popular English nursery rhyme, which reads like a solicitation for gardening advice, is actually a recounting of the homicidal nature of Queen Mary I of England, a.k.a. Bloody Mary. A fierce believer in Catholicism, her reign as queen—from 1553 to 1558—was marked by the execution of hundreds of Protestants. (Silver bells and cockle shells are torture devices, not garden accouterments.)
6. THREE BLIND MICE (1805)
“Three Blind Mice” is supposedly yet another ode to Bloody Mary’s reign, with the trio in question believed to be a group of Protestant bishops——who (unsuccessfully) conspired to overthrow the queen and were burned at the stake for their heresy. Critics suggest that the blindness in the title refers to their religious beliefs.
7. EENY, MEENY, MINY, MO
No, there’s nothing particularly inflammatory about the lines “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Mo, Catch a tiger by his toe.” But there is when you consider that the word “tiger” is a relatively new development in this counting rhyme, as a replacement for the n-word.
8. HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH (1840)
“Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” is often sung as part of a children’s game. According to historian R. S. Duncan, a former governor of England’s Wakefield Prison, the song originated with that 420-year-old institution’s female prisoners, who were exercised around a mulberry tree. Which is probably not the connotation your six-year-old self had in mind.
9. ROCK-A-BYE BABY (1765)
One interpretation of this famous lullaby is that it is about the son of King James II of England and Mary of Modena. It is widely believed that the boy was not their son at all, but a child who was brought into the birthing room and passed off as their own in order to ensure a Roman Catholic heir to the throne.
10. RING AROUND THE ROSIE (1881)
It’s long been thought this poem was about England’s Great Plague (which was truly awesome in the worst way possible). The rosy ring supposedly refered to the plague’s rash. The pocket of posies are the herbs people carried to dispel the disease’s smell. And the ashes were a nod to the cremation of the plague’s victims in yet another example that every nursery rhyme is actually a way bringing up death to a three-year-old.
*******But Snopes labels this reading false, and quotes folklorist Philip Hiscock with a more likely suggestion: That the nursery rhyme probably has its origins "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."