Nursery Rhymes and their Meaning

These seemingly childish rhymes have their roots based in historic fact.  Many people have researched the origin of  traditional nursery rhymes which have been part of children’s lives for hundreds of years and these familiar rhymes have existed for centuries.   Nursery rhymes began to be printed in England as early as 1570.   The verses were created to enable the people of the land to comment on the events or characters of the day in code, when any form of spoken hostility or disagreement with the monarchy, church or parliament would incur harsh penalties.  The rhymes like rebel songs are a useful comment on historical times and have been passed down from one generation to another by word of mouth.   At a time when many people were unable to read or write, the rhyme was chanted  from one generation to another and specific dances or actions were often associated with particular songs and passed on.

Polly put the Kettle On‘ first appeared in print in 1797 and tells of an everyday happening when girls made tea while waiting for the boys to leave so that the they could play their own girl’s game.  Sing a Song of Sixpence, published in 1744, has its origins in the 1500s when ordinary people fantasied about the probable outrageous eating habits of kings and queens.  The Grand Old Duke of York refers to the defeat of Richard III, Duke of York, at the battle of Wakefield on December 30th 1460, during the 30 years Wars of the Roses between the House of York (White Rose) and the House of Lancaster (Red Rose).  Richard marched his army to the Castle at Sandal which was built on top of a hill on the site of an old Norman mote.  However, in a moment of recklessness, he disastrously ‘marched them down again’ to make a direct attack  on the opposing forces . His army were overwhelmed by the Lancastrian army and Richard was killed.

The commonly used phrase ‘over the moon’ meaning ‘very happy’ comes from the rhyme, ‘Hey Diddle Diddle’ , thought to have originated in the 1700s.  The Cat and the Fiddle was a popular name for public houses at that time and one credible theory could be linked to an old game in pubs , involving a trap-ball called a ‘cat’ which used to be played with accompanying music from the fiddle – this explains why it became a pub name . In Henry VIII’s time , however,  the word ‘diddle’ was used for cheating in Tudor politics.

Humpty Dumpty wasn’t an egg and a more recent theory attaches Humpty Dumpty to a cannon in Colchester, England, during the town’s siege in 1648 towards the end of the Civil War. The town had a castle and several churches encircled by a protective wall. A large and heavy cannon, nicknamed Humpty Dumpty, was strategically placed by the King’s men, to defend the city, on top of the wall protecting St Mary’s church. However, the church tower was hit by the forces of Cromwell, causing the cannon to tumble to the ground, where it shattered and could not be put back together again.

Baa Baa Black Sheep takes us back to the reign of Edward I (1239 – 1307) when sheep and the distribution of wool and the wool trade were very important for the economy. As the wool trade increased the great landowners including lords, abbots and bishops began to count their wealth in terms of sheep. The monasteries, in particular the Cistercians, played a very active part in the trade, which pleased the king who was able to levy a tax on every sack of wool that was exported.  The last line of the rhyme was apparently changed to ‘and none for the little boy who cries down the lane ‘to make the rhyme more suitable for children. Medieval legend told of a King Coel who was the historical character in the nursery rhyme ‘Old King Cole’, who was also known in early Welsh tradition as  Coel Hen ( ‘Coel the Old’ ).   It is suggested that he was a 4th Century leader who built Colchester and lived at the time when the Roman legions were departing from Britain.  King Coel was said to be the father of  Saint Helena and through her, the grandfather of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.

All children love the simplicity of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star‘ which originated as a French folk song and was interpreted by Mozart who heard the melody while on a visit to Paris. The words were written by two Victorian sisters, Ann and Jane Taylor who called their English poem ‘The Star’.

Sing nursery rhymes with your child on your knee and through this closeness, your child will feel safe and secure, associating the rhythm of your heart beat with the rhythm of the rhyme, emotionally connecting to the melody and listening to the words.  Nursery rhymes encourage the interaction between parents and children.  We need to instil the desire to listen because it is through interaction with others that we build our identity and sense of self.  As the child develops in the world, he has to adapt his hearing as he learns to listen, feel and respond to others.

 Sensory Rainbow documents a year-long , funded research project with a random selection of  160 babies, aged between 7 and 12 months , where music was introduced to a control group as a healing agent to accelerate language and improve awareness.

Musical Magic offers originally composed music to accompany daytime play, a bedtime relaxation track with music and voice to instil peaceful feelings and nursery rhymes with sound effects for shared enjoyment with a parent.

You may also like to read ‘ How Babies Learn to Listen’