Ring Around the Rosie

“Ring Around the Rosie” has been a popular nursery rhyme for a very long time. Many of us learned it when we were children. But we often hear people claim that the rhyme is traceable to the time of the Black Death, and that each line is a morbid reminder of the horrors of Bubonic Plague.

For example, a ring around the rosie is said to refer to skin lesions that were symptomatic of plague infection, and a pocketful of posies is said to refer to flowers whose scent many people believed could prevent them from becoming sick. Finally, the lines, “Ashes, ashes – we all fall down” sound a lot like an oblique reference to dying, as in “Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.”

At face value, this myth seems plausible. Even though the words sound like nonsense, the explanation seems almost obvious in hindsight. But alas, Buzzkillers, Ring Around the Rosie is just a nursery rhyme that, like most nursery rhymes, has no particular reference to any event. In other words, it is what you always thought it was before somebody told you otherwise: a silly rhyme for children to play games with.

How do we know that this rhyme is just as innocent as it sounds?

Well, for one thing, the earliest printed copy of Ring Around the Rosie does not appear until 1881, in the Mother Goose book famously illustrated by Kate Greenaway. But the Bubonic Plague began around 1347. In order to believe that this rhyme has anything to do with the Plague, you must first believe that millions of children and their parents transmitted the rhyme orally – exclusively orally – for over 500 years. Had the rhyme really been popular for over half a millennium, it would likely have been written down during that time, but there’s no evidence that anybody ever did.

Further, there are many variations on Ring Around the Rosie that obviously have nothing to do with death or disease – and all of them originated in the 19th century, not the 14th century. To take just one example, you would need a lot of imagination to read any plague reference into the version of the rhyme that goes like this:

Ring, a ring o’ roses
A pocketful o’ posies
Upstairs and downstairs,
In my lady’s chamber –
Husher! Husher! Cuckoo!

Finally, the first published record of anybody interpreting Ring Around the Rosie as a plague rhyme is The Plague and the Fire, by James Leasor, published in 1961. If this nursery rhyme is really about death and disease, it sure took us a long time to find out.

What does Ring Around the Rosie really mean? Not much. It’s like “A Tisket, A Tasket” or “Hey Diddle Diddle.” Almost all these children’s rhymes and songs are made up of words that sound good together, that are easy to remember, and perhaps most of all, that can have physical play (like forming a circle and all falling down at the same time) attached to them.

So there you have it, Buzzkillers. Ring Around the Rosie is just as silly as it sounds.

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  1. Brian Massman on September 1, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    This one really DID kill my buzz. I can still remember Jack Palance’s distinctively creepy voice on the old “Believe It Or Not” TV show intoning “Achoos, achoos, (sneezing sounds) we all fall down.” I guess that was one of many times the correct choice for that show was the “Or Not” option.

    Professor Mass Man

  2. Cthonus on September 19, 2016 at 9:25 am

    “Upstairs and downstairs,
    In my lady’s chamber”

    This isn’t part of the same rhyme – it’s a couplet from Goosey Goosey Gander about the English Civil War, so of course it doesn’t make sense in this context.

    “n order to believe that this rhyme has anything to do with the Plague, you must first believe that millions of children and their parents transmitted the rhyme orally – exclusively orally – for over 500 years”

    Hmm. A bit of a logical fallacy this one. Why does a nursery rhyme have to be contemporaneous with the events it depicts? Hymns aren’t two thousand years old.

    • Professor Buzzkill on September 19, 2016 at 11:48 am

      Hi. Thanks so much for this. I take your point about the logical fallacy of nursery rhymes not having to be contemporaneous with the the event they supposedly “describe.” I’ll fix that part of the blog post. But my main point still stands that there is no evidence that RRR is about the plague, even though it sounds like it. And the “upstairs, downstairs” couplet is indeed part of one of the many versions of RRR, in addition to being in Goosey Goosey Gander. And I have to add that there is also no reliable evidence that GGG is about the English Civil War or priest-hunting during the Reformation in England. GGG certainly has many phrases that could be mis-interpreted as having to do with priest holes and casting out “left-footers” [a more recent pejorative term for Catholics], but there is no direct evidence that it was written about the English Civil War or the Reformation. Thanks again for pointing out my loose logic about oral transmission, though!

  3. Toaster on April 17, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    Ring around a Rosie sound like a reference the German blitzkrieg.

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