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. It also encourages children to enjoy music. In addition, specific actions, motions, or dances are often associated with particular songs.
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). In the English language, the term nursery rhyme generally refers to those of European origin, and the best known examples are English and originated in or since the 17th century. Their origins were possibly a form of oral political cartoon from an era when free speech could get the speaker imprisoned. Nursery rhymes, however, are often violent in nature; for example, in "Jack and Jill", Jack fell down and "broke his crown" i.e., injuring his head so that it bled.
Some nursery rhymes, however, are substantially older. "Sing a Song of Sixpence" exists in written records as far back as the Middle Ages. Some well-known nursery rhymes originated in the United States, such as "Mary had a little lamb".
- Main article: Mother Goose
No doubt the most famous collection of nursery rhymes is that of Mother Goose, a name still applied in the United States as a generic title for collections of nursery rhymes. In seventeenth-century France, a conte de ma mère l'Oie was a familiar phrase for an unlikely countrified yarn; Mother Goose got her real start with Charles Perrault's collection of fairy tales Histoires ou contes du temps passés, avec des moralités, which grew to become better known under its subtitle, Contes de ma mère l'Oie or Tales of Mother Goose. An English translation appeared in 1700, and a version published by John Newbery, ca. 1760-65, was pirated in Massachusetts about 1785.
The nursery rhyme "Ring a Ring o' Roses", also known as "Ring Around The Rosie", is mistakenly referred to as a metaphorical reference to the Great Plague of London. According to this theory, first symptoms of plague were ring-like sores. People didn't understand the illness and would place flowers in the pocket in the belief that illness came from bad smells, so to have something smell sweet would possibly kill the sickness. Also, there is a strong and ancient belief in plants and flowers having spiritual abilities.
A credible interpretation of "Pop Goes the Weasel" is that it is about silk weavers working with their shuttle or bobbin (known as a "weasel"). Another interpretation derives from the need for the poor working class to have to take their coats (weasels and stoats in Cockney Rhyming Slang) to 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. Shepherdess Walk is just off the City Road mentioned in the same verse ("Up and down the City Road, in and out The Eagle"). Alternatively, the term weasel might be Cockney rhyming slang for a coat ("weasel and stoat" = "coat"), and the coat itself was pawned.
It is possible, even likely, that some nursery rhymes have been lost, as nursery rhymes are mainly an oral tradition passed down for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years. Because of the lack of education throughout much of history, no written records of them would have been made.
Nursery rhyme revisionism
There have been several movements, across the world, to make nursery rhymes (along with fairy tales and popular songs) "politically correct". Psychoanalysts such as Bruno Bettelheim, strongly criticized this revisionism, on the grounds that it weakened their usefulness to both children and adults as ways of symbolically resolving issues. Such revised versions may not perform the functions of catharsis for children, or allow them to imaginatively deal with violence and danger. Also, a society as a whole may be the poorer for it, because it loses opportunities to discuss obsolete values, even repulsive ones (like racism).
- Nursery Rhymes & Quotes: Mem Fox & Father Goose
- Search for a nursery rhyme
- Lyrics to many nursery rhymes
- The origins and history of nursery rhymes
- Nursery Rhymes Lyrics, Origins, and History
- The first collections of nursery rhymes
- Nursery Rhymes and further information
- Nursery Rhymes and Midis
- Nursery Rhymes Video and MP3 Karaoke, Backing Tracks
- The Real Mother Goose - Project Gutenberg website
- List of family-friendly nursery rhymes