19 Beloved Nursery Rhymes That Conceal Controversial Origins Now Considered Problematic

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We all have cherished nursery rhymes that have shaped our childhood. We instantly recall some of them and bring back a sense of nostalgia when we cross kindergartens. Yet, many of these childlike innocent verses have a dark origin, which is punctuated by murder, bloodshed, and racism. Here are 19 such rhymes:

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Baa Baa Black Sheep

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Many are unaware that the rhyme is linked to the wool tax imposed in the 13th century. According to the law, one-third of a wool sack had to be paid as tax to the king and church. Some schools even banned the rhyme as the word “black” was misleading for many people. These issues regarding taxation and oppression of people with low incomes alongside a racial undertone are considered problematic these days.

Ring a Around O’Roses

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Many will agree that the happiest moment of our lives was hoping, jumping about while holding hands to this rhyme. However, the darker side of the coin revolves around the Great Plague, which struck London in 1665. When the people were affected by the plague, they hid the scent by carrying a bouquet of roses to their faces. Even though many scholars debate this association, the problematic aspect of the epidemic and suffering transformed into a cheerful song is viewed as insensitive.

Goosey Goosey Gander

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Who would imagine that our beloved thyme, which has the word “Goosey” in it, is actually about persecution? When Protestants and Catholics clashed during the English Reformation, the protestants used to raid “priest holes”, a palace where the Catholic priests hid. The old man in the rhyme refers to the priest who, on discovery, is dragged out and executed. The violence and religious sentiments associated with the rhyme’s origins make it widely frowned upon.

Ten Little Monkeys

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Each of us had our ways of learning and counting numbers, but many of us had the assistance of ten little monkeys to learn them backward. We all pledged never to jump on the bed to avoid hurting our heads, but what we did not know is that this rhyme is derived from its racist counterpart, “Ten little n**ggers”. It was a rhyme propagated to spread hate towards the blacks and teach white children to despise them. Each verse was related to their demise, with one being, “Ten little n**ger boys went out to dine;/ One choked his little self, and then there were nine.”

Mary Mary, Quite Contrary

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If somebody told us as a kid that our beloved rhymes had murder associated with them, we would be baffled and sad. Mary I of England was popularly known as “Bloody Mary” for her harsh treatment and persecution of the Protestants. In present times, teaching this chant to children is highly problematic because of the weight of the words. “Garden” refers to cemeteries, and “silver bells” refer to the instruments of torture.

Three Blind Mice

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Mary I of England is surely a famous, rather infamous, character for her brutality in children’s rhymes. The torture of three bishops is covered up here by the three blind mice, whose “blindness” symbolizes their religious adherence. These three bishops were executed under the queen, and what is perceived as a sweet and simple song about rodents has its historical origins drenched in blood.

Jack and Jill

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After finding out the origins of this rhyme, you will wonder whether it was a pail of water or blood. The origins are associated with the French Revolution, eventually ending with the beheading of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The “fall” of Jack and Jill’s subsequent “tumbling after” refers to the death of the king and queen on the guillotine. While some may celebrate this rhyme, trivializing revolutionary violence and the tumultuous period of the French Revolution is not appreciated.

Georgie Porgie

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As we dwell deeper into the world of children’s rhymes, queer and bisexual elements also come to light with underlying meanings in them. The origin of this rhyme lies in George Villers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham, who was a favorite boy of King James IV. The rhyme about him kissing girls and running away refers to the ladies of the palace with whom he had relationships and cheated. He was protected in the king’s quarters, and many suspects had a romantic relationship with him. Such queer origins would not be acceptable by many conservatives, primarily when they are taught to children.

London Bridge Is Falling Down

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This story dates back to 1014, when the Vikings invaded England and burned the London Bridge. Problems arise when people refuse to acknowledge that the Vikings repaired the London Bridge. The historical event is questioned itself and rhymes about it, further evoking curiosity can lead to a lack of respect for the local heritage.

Eeny Meeny Miny Mo

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At first glance, or maybe even a million, Eeny Meeny Miny Mo and catching a tiger by its toe doesn’t seem suspicious at all. However, modern creativity has ruined this rhyme by making its racist counterpart. Early 19th and 20th-century versions in the United States made our beloved Eeny Meeny Miny Mo catch a n*gger by its toe. This resulted in it being banned, and it is still a problematic rhyme today.

Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater

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Oppressing women and keeping them confined to the household is not an enjoyable topic to be discussed. The origins of Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater first appeared in infant Institutes, part the first in 1797 that revolved around Peter, a wasted man who suppressed his wife. The pumpkin shell may refer to the house, and divorcing her because of her nagging makes it a problematic rhyme for spouse control.

Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

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It’s never fun to discover references telling you your favorite nursery rhyme is about the poor and marginalized. The rhyme “Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, ” analyzed by Historian R. S. Duncan, is about England’s West Yorkshire Prison. It is a tale about female prisoners in this 420-year-old institution who took their daily walks around the Mulberry tree. In reality, no one would want their children listening to such rhymes with connotations of prions.

Rock-a-bye Baby

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Stories revolving around infidelity and cheating are always sad, but it becomes fascinating when unimaginable tactics are used to cover them up. It is believed that James II of England could not get a child, so he sneaked a baby boy into the birthing room. This was to combat the Protestants who would compel the infertile king to step down the throne. Other origins suggest that dead babies were hung from trees and rocked to bring them back to life. Be it the political turbulence or the horrific act with the dead bodies of children, these origins would be considered problematic.

Rub a Dub Dub

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While some sources suggest that it was about three maids in a tub, others suggest three men were involved. The men were a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker, all found in a tub and exposed to everyone. Regardless of the origin, the sexual aspect is present in this rhyme with adult-themed innuendos. The later Victorians tried to cover this up by replacing and changing words, but three men in a tub still make this a queer rhyme.

Old Mother Goose and Golden Egg

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Many communities have been portrayed negatively by associating greedy and selfish stereotypes. Jews are one such group, and the rhyme “Old Mother Goose and Golden Egg” contains lines such as “Jack sold his gold egg/ To a rogue of a Jew/ Who cheated him out of/ The half of his due.” Later, it is revealed that the Jew kills the egg for more money. This negative targeting and disrespect towards one group would not be appreciated today.

Jimmy Crack Corn

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A famous children’s rhyme and also an American song that was popular during the rise of blackface minstrelsy in the 1840s is credited to Virginia Minstrels. The rhyme revolves around a black enslaved man lamenting his white master’s death after he fell off a horse. In reality, he is rejoicing in his death as the enslaved person himself, having contributed to it through negligence. While the theme of freedom may be prevalent, the death of the master and the black enslaved man taking pride in it may be somewhat problematic.

There was an Old Woman Who Lived In a Shoe

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The origin of this rhyme is often thought to criticize Queen Caroline and take a jab at the overpopulation. The Old woman has to give her children “some broth without any bread” and whip them all to sleep because she cannot afford their expenses. This cruel theme about a woman disregarding her children would not set a positive example in today’s time. However, the modern versions have portrayed a mother grateful to God for sending them bread and kissing her children to bed.

Little Miss Muffet

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Arguments claim this rhyme refers to Queen Mary I of Scotland, who feared the religious reformer John Knox. In contrast, others have claimed that it refers to the daughter of a famous entomologist, Dr. Thomas Muffet. The spider scaring Miss Muffet allegedly symbolizes fear of religion, which was used to fight and mock English Puritans and religious dissenters. Such themes are criticized for spreading a fake notion of fear using religion that may mislead people.

Little Tommy Tucker

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When push comes to shove, people do anything for survival, whether coming down the streets or begging for food. “Singing for supper” was a proverbial phrase common in the 17th century, when people had to sing on the streets to beg. Using the condition of the poor people for entertainment, thereby romanticizing and simplifying the harsh reality, is unpleasant. Issues like child labor and other social issues may also appear, which can cause a problem.

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