The Quick 10: 10 Nursery Rhyme Interpretations

If you're like me, you've probably grown up your entire life without putting much thought into the nursery rhymes drilled into your head since you could listen. But there are tales behind each of them "“ whether they're accurate or not is another story! Here are 10 of the possible meanings behind 10 classic rhymes.

LAMB1. Mary Had a Little Lamb was inspired by a little girl named Mary Sawyer who"¦ yes, you guessed it "“ owned a pet lamb. Her brother, being mischievous as most brothers are, suggested that she take the lamb to school with her one day. How the poem came about (it was a poem before it became a song and a nursery rhyme) is debated. As an adult, Mary recalled that a young man was visiting the classroom that day with his uncle, the Reverend Lemuel Capen. He witnessed the entire Lamb Incident and thought it was so funny that he wrote Mary a little poem and gave it to her the next day. The first time it was published, though, it was credited to Sarah Josepha Hale. Some people think the first half of the poem was written as Mary Sawyer suggested, and Sarah Hale added the rest when she published Poems for our Children in 1830.

2. Humpty Dumpty counts at least four different origins, but the one that seems to get the most credit is the theory that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon used in the 1648 siege of Colchester during the English Civil War. People think this is so because of an additional verse that no one ever uses in the rhyme for little kids:

In Sixteen Hundred and Forty-Eight
When England suffered the pains of state
The Roundheads lay siege to Colchester town
Where the king's men still fought for the crown
There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall
A gunner of deadliest aim of all
From St. Mary's Tower his cannon he fired
Humpty-Dumpty was its name
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall...

However, it turns out that this verse was written as a joke by a professor for publication in the Oxford Magazine in 1956. The truth is, we don't have any proof that Humpty Dumpty was a cannon, although Colchester has apparently glommed on to the idea and now promotes the great Humpty Dumpty cannon as part of its tourist trade. There is evidence, however, that "humpty dumpty" was a phrase used to describe an alcoholic drink that was made of brandy boiled with ale, so perhaps it's really a nursery rhyme about the loss of booze.

3. Jack Be Nimble is kind of a mystery when you think about it. Sure, Jack might be nimble and quick, but why would he waste those skills jumping over sticks of wax? Shouldn't he be trying out for the track team or something? Well, when the rhyme popped up somewhere around 1815, jumping candlesticks was something of a superstition. If you could hop over it without putting the flame out, you were guaranteed to have good luck.

4. Ring Around the Rosie, or Ring a Ring o' Roses, is not about the plague. It wasn't even published until 1881 and the symptoms "described" in the verse don't even fit the plague. Plus, there are many different variations on the rhyme other than the one we associate with the plague "“ for instance, one version says "Ring a ring a rosie, a bottle full of posie, all the girls in our town, ring for little Josie." Snopes calls this one bunk.

JILL5. Jack and Jill has so many interpretations, it's hard to pick just one. I kind of like the one that says Jack and "Gill" are units of measurement. King Charles I tried to change the taxes on liquid measures so that people would receive less but be taxed the same. A "Jack" was a half pint and a "Gill" was a quarter pint. Another interpretation suggests that Jack and Jill actually represent the beheadings of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, which makes sense "“ "Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after," until you recite the second verse to the rhyme. Louis XVI definitely did not get up and trot home "as fast as he could caper; and went to bed to mend his head with vinegar and brown paper."

6. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep has two possible origins: a commentary on the wool tax which survived from 1275 to the 15th century, or a connection to the slave trade. Both are pretty questionable: since Baa, Baa, Black Sheep wasn't published until 1744, the rhyme would have to have been passed down orally for hundreds of years to have survived (which is possible, but questionable). The slave trade theory has been discredited by scholars, but I can offer you a cold, hard fact: "Black Sheep" and Glenn Miller's "In the Mood" were the first songs to be saved and played on a computer.

7. Little Jack Horner might be about Henry VIII dissolving the monasteries in the mid-1500s. There was man at Glastonbury Abbey named Thomas Horner who was steward to the abbot. The story goes that before the official word that the monastery would be closed was passed down, Horner went to London with the deeds hidden away inside a big Christmas pie. He ended up keeping the deed to Mells Manor himself, which is the "big plum" he pulled out. And some of that is definitely true "“ records show that Horner did take ownership of the manor during that time period. But what we don't know is if the nursery rhyme is actually referencing that particular incident.

8. Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross apparently refers to a giant cross that used to be in Banbury but was removed by the Puritans in 1602. The "fine lady" referenced has thought, at various times, to be Lady Godiva, Queen Elizabeth I or even a misinterpretation of "Fiennes." Celia Fiennes was an English woman who set off across the countryside just to see different towns and cities in a time when travelling for fun wasn't really the thing.

COLE9. Colchester has another nursery rhyme claim, maybe: Old King Cole. That particular "merry old soul" could be based on a King Cole who lived in Colchester all the way back in the third century. Some think "Colchester" is interpreted as "Cole's Castle" even though most historians will tell you the "Col" part of the name is derived from the River Colne. Merry Old Soul candidate #2 is King Cole of Northern Britain who lived sometime around 400 A.D. Considering that our first recorded instance of "Old King Cole" doesn't occur until 1708, this is another one that would have had to somehow survive orally for more than 1,000 years. Possible? Maybe.

10. Three Blind Mice is a pretty horrifying tale when you think about it "“ the poor, sightless mice practically get their backsides whacked off with a butcher knife. And if you consider one of the other versions that ends with "shee scrapte her tripe licke thou the knife," which indicates that she eats the poor things after torturing them, it's positively nightmare-inducing. One theory says the little ditty is based on the equally horrific deeds of Bloody Mary, AKA Queen Mary I of England. In her efforts to restore England to Catholicism, she had hundreds of people burned at the stake and otherwise tortured and maimed. This included three very prominent men "“ two bishops and an archbishop, later referred to as the Oxford Martyrs. Could this men and Bloody Mary be the inspiration behind Three Blind Mice? Some say yes.

Have you heard any interpretations that I missed? I think in most cases, the rhymes were probably just rhymes and our political brains have tried to assign meaning to them after the fact. But it's fun to speculate anyway. If you have some fuel to add to the fire, let us know in the comments.

Afternoon Map
From Snoopy to Shark Bait: The Top Slang Word in Each State

There’s a minute, and then there’s a hot minute. Defined as “a longish amount of time,” this unit of time is familiar to Alabamians but may stir up confusion beyond the state’s borders.

It’s Louisianans, though, who feel the “most misunderstood,” according to the results of a survey regarding regional slang by PlayNJ. Of the Louisiana residents surveyed, 72 percent said their fellow Americans from other states—even neighboring ones—have a hard time grasping their lingo. Some learned the hard way that ordering a burger “dressed” (with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo) isn’t universally understood, nor is the phrase “to pass a good time” (instead of “to have” a good time).

After surveying 2000 people (with proportional numbers from each state), PlayNJ created a map showing the top slang word in each state. Many are words that are unlikely to be understood beyond state lines, but others—like California’s bomb (something you really like) and New York’s deadass (to be completely serious)—have spread well beyond their respective borders thanks to memes and internet culture.

Hawaiians are also known for their distinctive slang words, with 71 percent reporting that words like shaka (hello) and poho (waste of time) are frequently misunderstood. Shark bait, one of the state’s more colorful terms, refers to tourists who are so pale that they attract sharks.

Check out the full list below and test your knowledge of regional slang words with PlayNJ’s online quiz.

A chart showing the top slang words in each state
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
The Body
10 Facts About the Appendix
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock
Illustration by Mental Floss / Images: iStock

Despite some 500 years of study, the appendix might be one of the least understood structures in the human body. Here's what we know about this mysterious organ.


The human appendix is small, tube-shaped, and squishy, giving ancient Egyptians, who encountered it when preparing bodies for funerary rites, the impression of a worm. Even today, some medical texts refer to the organ as vermiform—Latin for "worm-like."


The earliest description of a human appendix was written by the Renaissance physician-anatomist Jacopo Berengario da Carpi in 1521. But before that, Leonardo da Vinci is believed to drawn the first depiction of the organ in his anatomical drawings in 1492. Leonardo claimed to have dissected 30 human corpses in his effort to understand the way the body worked from mechanical and physiological perspectives.


The appendix is a small pouch connected to the cecum—the beginning of the large intestine in the lower right-hand corner of your abdomen. The cecum’s job is to receive undigested food from the small intestine, absorb fluids and salts that remain after food is digested, and mix them with mucus for easier elimination; according to Mohamad Abouzeid, M.D., assistant professor and attending surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center, the cecum and appendix have similar tissue structures.


The appendix has an ill-deserved reputation as a vestigial organ—meaning that it allegedly evolved without a detectable function—and we can blame Charles Darwin for that. In the mid-19th century, the appendix had been identified only in humans and great apes. Darwin thought that our earlier ancestors ate mostly plants, and thus needed a large cecum in which to break down the tough fibers. He hypothesized that over time, apes and humans evolved to eat a more varied and easier-to-digest diet, and the cecum shrank accordingly. The appendix itself, Darwin believed, emerged from the folds of the wizened cecum without its own special purpose.


The proximity and tissue similarities between the cecum and appendix suggest that the latter plays a part in the digestive process. But there’s one noticeable difference in the appendix that you can see only under a microscope. “[The appendix] has a high concentration of the immune cells within its walls,” Abouzeid tells Mental Floss.

Recent research into the appendix's connection to the immune system has suggested a few theories. In a 2015 study in Nature Immunology, Australian researchers discovered that a type of immune cells called innate lymphoid cells (ILCs) proliferate in the appendix and seem to encourage the repopulation of symbiotic bacteria in the gut. This action may help the gut recover from infections, which tend to wipe out fluids, nutrients, and good bacteria.

For a 2013 study examining the evolutionary rationale for the appendix in mammal species, researchers at Midwestern University and Duke University Medical Center concluded that the organ evolved at least 32 times among different lineages, but not in response to dietary or environmental factors.

The same researchers analyzed 533 mammal species for a 2017 study and found that those with appendices had more lymphatic (immune) tissue in the cecum. That suggests that the nearby appendix could serve as "a secondary immune organ," the researchers said in a statement. "Lymphatic tissue can also stimulate growth of some types of beneficial gut bacteria, providing further evidence that the appendix may serve as a 'safe house' for helpful gut bacteria." This good bacteria may help to replenish healthy flora in the gut after infection or illness.


For such a tiny organ, the appendix gets infected easily. According to Abouzeid, appendicitis occurs when the appendix gets plugged by hardened feces (called a fecalith or appendicolith), too much mucus, or the buildup of immune cells after a viral or bacterial infection. In the United States, the lifetime risk of getting appendicitis is one in 15, and incidence in newly developed countries is rising. It's most common in young adults, and most dangerous in the elderly.

When infected, the appendix swells up as pus fills its interior cavity. It can grow several times larger than its average 3-inch size: One inflamed appendix removed from a British man in 2004 measured just over 8 inches, while another specimen, reported in 2007 in the Journal of Clinical Pathology, measured 8.6 inches. People with appendicitis might feel generalized pain around the bellybutton that localizes on the right side of the abdomen, and experience nausea or vomiting, fever, or body aches. Some people also get diarrhea.


Treatment for appendicitis can go two ways: appendectomy, a.k.a. surgical removal of the appendix, or a first line of antibiotics to treat the underlying infection. Appendectomies are more than 99 percent effective against recurring infection, since the organ itself is removed. (There have been cases of "stump appendicitis," where an incompletely removed appendix becomes infected, which often require further surgery.)

Studies show that antibiotics produce about a 72 percent initial success rate. “However, if you follow these patients out for about a year, they often get recurrent appendicitis,” Abouzeid says. One 2017 study in the World Journal of Surgery followed 710 appendicitis patients for a year after antibiotic treatment and found a 26.5 percent recurrence rate for subsequent infections.


You might imagine a ruptured appendix, known formally as a perforation, being akin to the "chestbuster" scene in Alien. Abouzeid says it's not quite that dramatic, though it can be dangerous. When the appendix gets clogged, pressure builds inside the cavity of the appendix, called the lumen. That chokes off blood supply to certain tissues. “The tissue dies off and falls apart, and you get perforation,” Abouzeid says. But rather than exploding, the organ leaks fluids that can infect other tissues.

A burst appendix is a medical emergency. Sometimes the body can contain the infection in an abscess, Abouzeid says, which may be identified through CT scans or X-rays and treated with IV antibiotics. But if the infection is left untreated, it can spread to other parts of the abdomen, a serious condition called peritonitis. At that point, the infection can become life-threatening.


In 1894, Charles McBurney, a surgeon at New York's Roosevelt Hospital, popularized an open-cavity, muscle-splitting technique [PDF] to remove an infected appendix, which is now called an open appendectomy. Surgeons continued to use McBurney's method until the advent of laparoscopic surgery, a less invasive method in which the doctor makes small cuts in the patient's abdomen and threads a thin tube with a camera and surgical tools into the incisions. The appendix is removed through one of those incisions, which are usually less than an inch in length.

The first laparoscopic appendectomies were performed by German physician Kurt Semm in the early 1980s. Since then, laparoscopic appendectomies have become the standard treatment for uncomplicated appendicitis. For more serious infections, open appendectomies are still performed.


When the future King Edward VII of Great Britain came down with appendicitis (or "perityphlitis," as it was called back then) in June 1902, mortality rates for the disease were as high as 26 percent. It was about two weeks before his scheduled coronation on June 26, 1902, and Edward resisted having an appendectomy, which was then a relatively new procedure. But surgeon and appendicitis expert Frederick Treves made clear that Edward would probably die without it. Treves drained Edward's infected abscess, without removing the organ, at Buckingham Palace; Edward recovered and was crowned on August 9, 1902.


On August 26, 2006, during an autopsy at a Zagreb, Croatia hospital, surgeons obtained a 10.24-inch appendix from 72-year-old Safranco August. The deceased currently holds the Guinness World Record for "largest appendix removed."


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