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The Quick 10: 10 Nursery Rhyme Interpretations

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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.

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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