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24 Terrifying, Thoughtful and Absurd Nursery Rhymes for Children

In more repressed times, people were not always allowed to express themselves freely, for fear of persecution. Gossiping, criticizing the government or even talking about current events were often punishable by death. In order to communicate at will, clever rhymes were constructed and passed around to parody public figures and events.

The first nursery rhymes can be traced back to the fourteenth century. While the Bubonic Plaque ravaged England, peasants used a rhyme to spread the word about equality. The "Adam and Eve" rhyme made peasants realize that they were important to the economy and contributed to the Peasants Revolt of 1381. Under the guise of children's entertainment, many rhymes that were encoded with secret messages throughout history have endured the test of time and are still with us today.

Other nursery rhymes don't seem to carry a particular message at all, but convey a macabre sense of humor. They have been so ingrained in us since childhood that we hardly notice that babies are falling from trees, women are held captive or live animals are being cooked. It's only when you stop and absorb the actual words of these catchy, sing-song rhymes that the darkness and absurdity is realized. A handful do not reference historical events at all, but instead seem to convey warnings or common sense wisdom.

Humpty Dumpty


humpty dumpty

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,
All the King's Horses and all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

In children's books, Humpty Dumpty is portrayed as a large egg, usually dressed like a little boy. It's a sad story, as he gets busted up and nobody can fix him. However, the real story behind the rhyme dates back to the English Civil War. Humpty was a huge cannon mounted atop a high wall-like church tower. During the Siege of Colchester, The tower was hit by enemy cannon fire and Humpty suffered a great fall. There was no fixing the cannon or the tower, and the Humpty Dumpty rhyme was born.

Ring Around The Rosie


Ring Around the Rosie


Ring around the rosy
A pocketful of posies
"Ashes, Ashes"
We all fall down!

This rhyme dates back to the Great Plague of London in 1665. The symptoms of bubonic plague included a rosy red ring-shaped rash, which inspired the first line. It was believed that the disease was carried by bad smells, so people frequently carried pockets full of fresh herbs, or "posies." The "ashes, ashes" line is believed to refer to the cremation of the bodies of those who died from the plague.

Baa Baa Blacksheep


Baa Baa Black Sheep


Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full!
One for the master, one for the dame
And one for the little boy who lives down the lane

Baa Baa Black Sheep references the importance of the wool industry to the economy from the Middle Ages until the nineteenth century. The rhyme is also thought to be a political satire of the export tax imposed in Britain in 1275 under the rule of King Edward I.

For Want of a Nail


For Want of a Nail


For want of a nail the shoe was lost
For want of a shoe the horse was lost
For want of a horse the rider was lost
For want of a rider the battle was lost
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail

This simple rhyme is a reminder for children to think of the possible consequences of their actions. It has often been used to illustrate the chain of events that can stem from a single thoughtless action.

Mary, Mary Quite Contrary


Mary Mary Quite Contrary


Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row

This rhyme is a reference to Bloody Mary. The garden refers to growing cemeteries, as she filled them with Protestants. Silver bells and cockle shells were instruments of torture and the maiden was a device used to behead people.

Goosey, Goosey Gander


Goosey Goosey Gander


Goosey, goosey, gander,
Whither dost thou wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady's chamber.

There I met an old man
Who wouldn't say his prayers;
I took him by the left leg,
And threw him down the stairs

While Mother Goose seems like a kind, grandmotherly sort, the gander in this rhyme appears to be quite a bastard. This sixteenth century rhyme is a reminder to children to always say their prayers.

It's Raining, It's Pouring


Raining Pouring

It's raining, it's pouring
The old man is snoring
He went to bed and he bumped his head
And couldn't get up in the morning

In this strange nursery rhyme, the man apparently was careless in going to bed and didn't wake up. We can only assume it's a message to be cautious when you're on your way to bed.

Rock-a-Bye, Baby


Rock-a-bye Baby


Rock-a-bye, baby,
In the tree top.
When the wind blows,
The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks,
The cradle will fall,
And down will come baby,
Cradle and al

The American roots of this odd rhyme come from a young pilgrim who saw Native American mothers hanging cradles in trees. When the wind blew, the cradles would rock and the babies in them would sleep.

Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater


Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater


Peter , Peter , pumpkin-eater,
Had a wife and couldn't keep her;
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well

This nursery rhyme also has it's roots in America, unlike most that started in England. It was a different time back then for women, and for views on divorce, too, which is why this rhyme served to warn young girls about infidelity. Peter's wife was supposedly a harlot, and Peter's remedy for the situation was to kill her and hide her body in a giant pumpkin shell.

Sing a Song of Sixpence


Sing a Song of Sixpence


Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?

This rhyme most certainly originated long ago, before PETA existed. It was likely based on a spoof by a court jester who thought it would be hilarious to trick the king by putting live birds into a pie shell. At the time, cooked blackbirds were considered a delicacy and would have been served to the king.

The King Was in his Counting House


The King was in his Counting House


The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose!

This is actually a continuation of "Sing a Song of Sixpence" and refers to what common folk imagined that royalty did all day. The live birds that were put in the pie are back for revenge in this verse.

Jack and Jill


Jack and Jill


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.

This poem originated in France. The characters refer to King Louis XVI, Jack, and his Queen Marie Antoinette, Jill. Jack was beheaded (lost his crown) first, then Jill came tumbling after during the Reign of Terror in 1793.

London Bridge


London Bridge


London Bridge bridge is falling down, down
Falling down down, falling down, down
London Bridge bridge is falling down, down
My fair lady.

Take a key key and lock padlock her up,
Lock padlock her up, lock padlock her up,
Take a key key and lock padlock her up,
My fair lady.

This nursery rhyme refers to the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII of England. Boleyn was accused of adultery and incest and was ultimately executed for treason.

There was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly


London Bridge


There was an old lady who swallowed a fly
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a spider,
That wriggled and wiggled and tiggled inside her;
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a bird;
How absurd to swallow a bird.
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a cat;
Fancy that to swallow a cat!
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady that swallowed a dog;
What a hog, to swallow a dog;
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a cow,
I don't know how she swallowed a cow;
She swallowed the cow to catch the dog,
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the bird,
She swallowed the bird to catch the spider,
She swallowed the spider to catch the fly;
I don't know why she swallowed a fly - Perhaps she'll die!

There was an old lady who swallowed a horse...
She's dead, of course!

These absurd lyrics were written by Rose Bonne and made popular in 1953 by Burl Ives. A woman who has a relatively small problem makes it progressively worse, which ultimately leads to her death.

Old Mother Hubbard


Old Mother Hubbard

Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor doggie a bone,
When she got there
The cupboard was bare
So the poor little doggie had none

or alternatively:


Old Mother Hubbard
Went to the cupboard
To get her poor daughter a dress.
But when she got there
The cupboard was bare
And so was her daughter, I guess!

This rhyme is reputedly about Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey refused to facilitate a divorce from Queen Katherine of Aragon for King Henry VIII. The King wanted a divorce so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. The doggie and the bone in the rhyme refer to the divorce, the cupboard is a reference to the Catholic Church and Wolsey is Old Mother Hubbard. The divorce was later arranged by Thomas Cramner and resulted in the break with Rome and the formation of the English Protestant church.

Little Miss Muffet


Old Mother Hubbard


Little Miss Muffet, sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her
And frightened Miss Muffet away

Little Miss Muffet was written in the sixteenth century by Dr. Muffet, the stepfather of a small girl named Patience Muffet. Dr. Muffet was an entomologist famous for writing the first scientific catalog of British insects.

Ladybug, Ladybug Fly Away Home


Ladybug, Ladybug Fly Away Home


Ladybug, ladybug fly away home,
Your house is on fire,
Your children will burn.
Except for the little one whose name is Ann,
Who hid away in a frying pan

Farmers have long known the beneficial qualities of ladybugs as a natural predator of destructive insects. After harvests and before the fields were burned, this rhyme would be chanted in hopes of the ladybugs surviving and coming back the following year. There is also speculation that this rhyme originated from the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Solomon Grundy


Solomon Grundy


Solomon Grundy
Born on Monday
Christened on Tuesday
Married on Wednesday
Ill on Thursday
Worse on Friday
Died on Saturday
Buried on Sunday
That is the end of Solomon Grundy.

This rhyme was originally collected by James Orchard Halliwell and published in 1842. Solomon Grundy is more widely known now as a D.C. Comics character.

A Wise Old Owl


A Wise Old Owl

A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard
Why can't we all be like that wise old bird?

This rhyme does not appear to have any hidden historical references, but carries a valuable message that holds true today.

Three Blind Mice


Three Blind Mice

Three blind mice. Three blind mice.
See how they run. See how they run.
They all ran after the farmer's wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a sight in your life,
As three blind mice

The vicious farmer's wife in this rhyme is believed to refer to Queen Mary I, the daughter of King Henry VIII. Mary, a staunch Catholic, was so well known for her persecution of Protestants that she was given the nickname "Bloody Mary." When three Protestant bishops were convicted of plotting against Mary, she had them burnt at the stake. However, it was mistakenly believed that she had them blinded and dismembered, as is inferred in the rhyme.

Little Bo Peep


Little Bo Peep

Little Bo peep has lost her sheep
And doesn't know where to find them.
Leave them alone and they'll come home,
Bringing their tails behind them.

Little Bo peep fell fast asleep
And dreamt she heard them bleating,
But when she awoke, she found it a joke,
For they were all still fleeting.

Then up she took her little crook
Determined for to find them.
She found them indeed, but it made her heart bleed,
For they left their tails behind them.

It happened one day, as Bo peep did stray
Into a meadow hard by,
There she espied their tails side by side
All hung on a tree to dry.

She heaved a sigh, and wiped her eye,
And over the hillocks went rambling,
And tried what she could,
As a shepherdess should,
To tack again each to its lambkin.

Little Bo Peep doesn't seem to refer to anyone or event in history, but is a warning about the consequences of irresponsibility.

Little Boy Blue


Little Boy Blue

Little Boy Blue come blow your horn,
The sheep's in the meadow the cow's in the corn.
But where's the boy who looks after the sheep?
He's under a haystack fast asleep.
Will you wake him? No, not I - for if I do, he's sure to cry

Little Boy Blue may refer to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1475-1530). Wolsey was an arrogant and wealthy self-made man and had many enemies in England. After obtaining his degree from Oxford at the age of fifteen, he was dubbed the "Boy Bachelor." The words "come blow your horn" likely refer to his incessant bragging.

The Big Ship Sails


Big Ship Sails

The big ship sails on the ally-ally-oh
The ally-ally-oh, the ally-ally-oh
Oh, the big ship sails on the ally-ally-oh
On the last day of September.

The captain said it will never, never do
Never, never do, never, never do
The captain said it will never, never do
On the last day of September.

The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea
The bottom of the sea, the bottom of the sea
The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea
On the last day of September.

We all dip our heads in the deep blue sea
The deep blue sea, the deep blue sea
We all dip our heads in the deep blue sea
On the last day of September.

The origins of this depressing dirge are unknown. However, there is speculation that it refers to the Manchester Ship canal, which was built for ocean-going ships and opened in 1894. It is the eighth-longest ship canal in the world, and is only slightly shorter than the Panama Canal.

Who killed Cock Robin?


Who Killed Cock Robin

"Who killed Cock Robin?" "I," said the Sparrow,
"With my bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."
"Who saw him die?" "I," said the Fly,
"With my little eye, I saw him die."
"Who caught his blood?" "I," said the Fish,
"With my little dish, I caught his blood."
"Who'll make the shroud?" "I," said the Beetle,
"With my thread and needle, I'll make the shroud."
"Who'll dig his grave?" "I," said the Owl,
"With my pick and shovel, I'll dig his grave."
"Who'll be the parson?" "I," said the Rook,
"With my little book, I'll be the parson."
"Who'll be the clerk?" "I," said the Lark,
"If it's not in the dark, I'll be the clerk."
"Who'll carry the link?" "I," said the Linnet,
"I'll fetch it in a minute, I'll carry the link."
"Who'll be chief mourner?" "I," said the Dove,
"I mourn for my love, I'll be chief mourner."
"Who'll carry the coffin?" "I," said the Kite,
"If it's not through the night, I'll carry the coffin."
"Who'll bear the pall? "We," said the Wren,
"Both the cock and the hen, we'll bear the pall."
"Who'll sing a psalm?" "I," said the Thrush,
"As she sat on a bush, I'll sing a psalm."
"Who'll toll the bell?" "I," said the bull,
"Because I can pull, I'll toll the bell."
All the birds of the air fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,
When they heard the bell toll for poor Cock Robin.

This English folksong is believed to reference the death of Robin Hood and reflects the respect that common folk has for him.

Pop Goes the Weasel


Pop Goes the Weasel

Half a pound of tuppenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.
Up and down the City road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

This Cockney rhyme dates back to the 1700s. The Cockney community developed a slang all their own because they mistrusted strangers and police. "Pop goes the weasel" was actually slang for "pawn your coat" and the Eagle refers to a pub, said to have been frequented by Charles Dickens. The pub was bought by the Salvation Army in 1883 and all drinking and music stopped.

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