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10 Disturbing Secrets About Nursery Rhymes That Will Ruin Your Childhood

VO: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Michael Wynands
You know the words, but how about the backstory? For this list, we’ll be looking at popular nursery rhymes that many people learned during their childhood, but which, upon closer inspection, are actually kind of messed up. WatchMojo counts down the 10 Disturbing Secrets About Nursery Rhymes That Will Ruin Your Childhood.
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Script written by Michael Wynands

10 Disturbing Secrets About Nursery Rhymes That Will Ruin Your Childhood


You know the words, but how about the backstory? Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the 10 Disturbing Secrets About Nursery Rhymes That Will Ruin Your Childhood.

For this list, we’ll be looking at popular nursery rhymes that many people learned during their childhood, but which, upon closer inspection, are actually kind of messed up. Be it due to the meaning of the words or the sinister lore behind these children’s poems, lullabies and songs, these nursery rhymes are far darker than you likely realized as a kid.

#10: Pop Goes the Weasel

For modern children, this nursery rhyme and singing game is just a whole lot of fun nonsense. The verses have evolved significantly over the years, and the contemporary American versions usually tell of a monkey chasing a weasel around a mulberry bush. But as the verses progress, the narrative begins to line up with the more traditional wording - it’s all about buying needle and thread, and little boys who are sick. In reality, this song is about abject poverty using Cockney rhyming slang. “Pop! Goes the weasel” is a person pawning their coat to buy themselves food and drink. The monkey represents looming debts and the demand for repayment. Not so fun anymore, is it?

#9: Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush

Considering how little time the average kid spends around mulberry bushes, it’s kind of ridiculous how present they are in popular nursery rhymes. But, like many nursery rhymes, “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush” dates back to the mid-19th century when kids had to get creative with mundane things to keep themselves entertained. Though this particular nursery rhyme seems innocent enough, one historian, R. S. Duncan, believes that it takes its roots from the Her Majesty's Prison Wakefield, where the female prisoners allegedly used to walk around a mulberry tree for exercise. Though this interpretation has been contested by some, it still makes for a grim mental picture.

#8: Georgie Porgie

It might be a silly name, but “Georgie Porgie” has a got a very adult history behind it - at least according to one analysis. It’s been suggested that this popular nursery rhyme, often used as a schoolyard taunt, was actually a reference to the rumored homosexual love affair between a man named George Villiers and King James I. The speed with which Villiers’ position was elevated by King James raised eyebrows then as it still does now. The nursery rhyme not only mocks James and Villiers, but takes Villiers to task in another way, as he allegedly forced himself upon women.

#7: Jack and Jill

This particular nursery rhyme, more so than most, has a clear narrative. Jack and Jill go up at hill to get some water. Jack falls and hits his head, Jill quickly runs down the hill after him. In the later verses, it’s made clear that Jack survives, but when you end the story after the first verse, it’s more ambiguous. Well, it turns out that Jack and Jill may have been doing more on that hill than, ahem... fetching water. Kilmersdon, a village in Somerset, claims it to be a true story from their own history involving an affair that ended in an unwanted pregnancy, a fatal blow to the head for Jack, and the death of Jill during childbirth.

#6: Rub-A-Dub-Dub

Over time, nursery rhymes tend to evolve, often winding up substantially different from their original wording. Such is the case with Rub-A-Dub-Dub. The version best known today describes three men in a tub out at sea. It’s a funny image that continues to delight children to this day, especially since the men have such distinct professions. Here’s the thing though; in the original nursery rhyme, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker weren’t in the tub… they were watching three women in the tub. That’s right, it was apparently some sort of peep show at the fair, and these three men were there to stare.

#5: Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Some argue the titular Mary in this nursery rhyme is none other than the mother of Jesus, and the bells, cockle shells and pretty maids are all religious symbols. Others have suggested that it’s about Mary I of England however, and it’s a pretty sinister depiction. Queen Mary famously had fertility problems, which could be what the line “How does your garden grow?” refers to. She also earned herself the nickname “Bloody Mary” when she had Protestants killed, and some believe the bells and shells the rhyme mentions are instruments of torture, and the “pretty maids all in a row” to be guillotines. Similarly, Mary I of England is also thought to be the farmer’s wife in “Three Blind Mice”.

#4: It's Raining, It's Pouring

Absurdly catchy and sure to pop into your head any time it rains, this popular nursery rhyme, sadly, is about much more than a rainy day. Innocent as we are when we’re kids, we feel bad for the old man who bumps his head, but we assume that he was simply too groggy, sore or disoriented to rise in the morning. The thing is… he’s not taking a sick day; that bump on the head in the night was likely a fatal one. He couldn’t get up the next morning, or any morning after that.

#3: Ten Little Indians

It’s easy enough to see why this particular nursery rhyme is problematic; just look at that title. While most of the nursery rhymes listed today are English in origin, this one is distinctly American-made. The nursery rhyme dates back to the 19th century, and was adapted into a full length song in 1868 by songwriter Septimus Winner, entitled “Ten Little Injuns”. Another version also switched the word “indian” for the N-word. Regardless of the version you’ve encountered, it’s a racist nursery rhyme that at the very least mocks the intelligence and capabilities of indigenous people, but can equally be seen as a story of genocide.

#2: Ring a Ring o' Rosie

The central line of this nursery rhyme was originally “Ring a Ring o' Roses” and has been interpreted a number of ways, but it’s most popularly seen as an instructional singing game involving an intentional fall or curtsy. One of the most common myths is that it’s talking about either the Black Death in the mid-14th century or the Great Plague of London in the mid-17th. The sneezing and falling down are now retroactively seen as signs of illness and death resulting from the plague. Posies were supposedly carried around for their purported protective purposes, the rosy was the rash, and the ashes… well, a lot of bodies were burned after they “all fell down”. Even if that’s not the inspiration, pretty grim, huh?

#1: London Bridge Is Falling Down

This famous singing game is known to date back to the 17th century, but quite possibly much earlier. The melody is catchy and the accompanying game can provide children with hours of fun, just so long as you don’t dig too deep into the origins of the nursery rhyme. There are three predominant theories. One is the story of a Viking attack and the apparent wrecking of the London bridge. The second is simply that it’s inspired by a fire that struck in 1633. The last and most haunting however, is that children were buried - maybe alive - in the foundation for superstitious reasons. Aren’t you glad it’s stuck in your head now?

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