Ring around the Rosie and Urban Legends

The freshmen in one of my classes are doing poetry, and in an attempt to get them to apply what they have learned, the teacher asked them to write down six lines of a song that they knew so that they could identify poetic elements like rhythm, rhyme, speaker and others. The lesson would have worked better if they had picked popular songs, but all of a sudden, they couldn’t think of any songs, so they picked things like “Happy Birthday” and “Ring around the Rosie.”

I was really surprised to hear one of them come up with the idea that “Ring around the Rosie” was really written about the Black Plague. Evidently one of the English teachers in junior high told the kids that the ring in the song was the ring that occurred with the sores accompanying the plague, and that posies were carried to conceal the smells associated with the dead and dying. Their teacher looked at me and asked me if I had heard that and I hadn’t. Not ever. But since the students said they had received a lesson about the origin of several nursery rhymes, I thought I would look it up.

According to Snopes.com, what the kids were taught is nothing more than an urban legend. Their reasoning makes sense. They said that nobody thought “Ring around the Rosie” was a reference to the plague until “James Leasor published The Plague and the Fire in 1961. “Ring around the Rosie” has been around since 1347, so it seems logical that somebody would have mentioned its connection to the plague before the 1960s.

Snopes says the real meaning of the nursery rhyme probably has to do with a religious ban on dancing in the nineteenth century. Just like teens everywhere, the teens at that time found their way around the ban by playing “ring games” without musical accompaniment. Evidently little children played the games too.

I don’t suppose it matters what the not-so-little children in English 9 think “Ring around the Rosie” means in the long run. What matters, at least for the lesson at hand, is if they can pick the poetic elements out of it. Still, a good English student always evaluates her sources. In my case, I think I will consider Snopes.com a much more valid source than a ninth grade English student.

Now I’ll have to let you go. I’ve always wondered where “Rock-a-bye-Baby” came from. What’s up with that cradle falling, anyway?

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3 Responses to “Ring around the Rosie and Urban Legends”


  1. 1 Carol January 10, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Interesting post, and a good question that you posed at the end. It’s always seemed kind of morbid to me to put a baby in a cradle in the top of a tree. I’d be interested to hear the origin of this one.

  2. 2 Becky January 11, 2008 at 6:48 am

    Carol, I looked at several different sites, and the answer that I found most about “Rock-a-bye-baby” was that it was written by a Pilgrim. He observed that the Wampanoag Indians would hang the cradleboards on which they carried their babies in trees when the weather was nice. The wind would rock the cradle while the mothers worked in the fields. The “when the bough breaks” line is supposed to have been a warning to pick a strong branch so poor baby wouldn’t end up on the ground.

    That actually makes me feel better. I can’t imagine those Indian women hanging their cradles very high, can you?

  3. 3 writeathome January 11, 2008 at 1:53 pm

    Hi Becky,

    I did a little bit of looking and found the same thing too. No, I wouldn’t think those women would put their cradles up very high.


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