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Behind the Meaning of “Ring Around the Rosie” Song Lyrics

May 30, 2023
ring around the rosie meaning

“Ring Around the Rosie” is a well-known children’s nursery rhyme passed down for generations.

The song’s origins are unclear, but it is believed to have originated in England during the late 18th century or early 19th century.

The song’s lyrics describe a group of children playing and singing while holding hands and walking in a circle, and the melody is a simple, catchy tune that is easy for young children to remember.

However, as with many nursery rhymes, hidden meanings, and interpretations suggest a darker history behind the song’s origins.

Over the years, the song’s meaning has been the subject of much speculation and debate.

Some people believe that the lyrics reference the Black Plague, while others think they are simply a nonsensical collection of words and phrases chosen because they sound catchy and easy to sing.

But what does “Ring Around the Rosie” mean and where did it come from?

History Of “Ring Around The Rosie” 

The song first appeared in print in the 1880s in Kate Greenaway’s Mother Goose, Or The Old Nursery Rhymes (1881).

In 1883, the books Shropshire Folk-Lore: A Sheaf of Gleanings and by William Wells Newell each had their own version.

The theory that the song has roots in the Black Plague breakouts of the 1300s seems to conflict with these early writings.

Most historians think that a written form of the song would have been made before the 1880s if it was really from the 14th century.

Newell said that the song had been around since the 1700s, but there is no proof, at least for the English form.

There may have been earlier versions in Germany, Switzerland, or Italy, where children still sing them today, but Greenaway’s version is the first proof that they were translated into English.

The song’s first recording was made in the 1930s in the United States.

It was written in 1939 by schoolgirls in Wiergate, Texas.

“Ring Around The Rosie” Today And Variants

The song lyrics are simple, so kids can easily learn and sing them. 

The new version goes as follows:

“Ring around the Rosie
A pocket full of posies
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.”

The lyrics are often sung as a group game is going on.

Children hold hands and sing as they walk or skip in a circle.

Then, in the last line, they let go of each other and fall down.

In another game variation, one kid stands in the middle of the circle as the “Rosie,” which comes from the French word “rosier.”

When the other kids fall (or squat or bow at the end of the song), the last one to do it loses and becomes “Rosie” for the next round.

There are many variations of the lyrics, but they all have the same (or very similar) first few lines.

In Britain, kids usually change the third line with the word “A-tishoo.”

In other recordings, lines like “Redbird, bluebird,” “Green grass, yellow grass,” or “Sweet bread, rye bread, Squat!” have been added.

In America in the 1930s, the lyrics were added to a later version.

“Ring around a Rosie
Pocketful o’ posies
Light bread, sweet bread, squat!
Guess who she told me, tralalalala
Mr. Red was her lover, tralalalala
If you love him, hug him.
If you hate him, stomp!”

Not every version has the person falling down. 

Some, as the one stated above, command the players to squat at the end or act like they’re sneezing (with the lyrics “A-tishoo”).

In other, less friendly versions, a male player tries to kiss a female player against her will.

Interpretations of the Nursery Rhyme 

There have been numerous theories about what the song’s words mean.

Historians back up a few of these stories, while others are mostly urban legends.

Plague Theory

One popular interpretation is that the song is about the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, which ravaged Europe in the 14th century.

The “Rosie” refers to the rash that was a disease symptom, while the “pocket full of posies” refers to the herbs and flowers that people carried to ward off the disease.

The “ashes, ashes” line refers to the cremation of the bodies of plague victims.

“A pocket full of posies” means that flowers were put in the pockets of the dead to respect them or as a superstition to keep the plague from spreading to the living.

The line “We all fall down” is supposed to be about how death is inevitable.

Even though the plague story is told on every playground to scare kids, there isn’t much evidence to back it up.

In fact, the notion that “Ring Around the Rosie” was about the plague didn’t come up until after World War II, and it wasn’t written down until the 1960s.

Pagan Ritual Theory

Another interpretation is that the song is a pagan ritual, with the “Rosie” referring to a circular dance performed around a tree or stone circle.

The “ashes, ashes” line refers to the scattering of ashes as part of the ritual.

Rosary Theory 

Some say that the words “ring around the Rosie” refer to a rosary, a collection of prayer beads used by Catholics and other Christians.

The phrase “ring o’ roses” may come from the fact that rosaries are usually made of a single loop of beads with many flower designs.

But this is just another theory, and official records have yet to show it is true.

Innocent Children’s Game

A more innocent interpretation is that the song is simply a children’s game, with the children holding hands and skipping around in a circle and the lyrics having no particular meaning.

Dancing Ban

Other historians think that the song might have something to do with the fact that dancing was banned in Protestant settings in both Britain and the United States in the past.

Dancing was not allowed, so singing games were made as a way around the rule.

The words “ashes, ashes” may have come from the term “husha, husha” or something similar, which told the other players to be quiet.

Most historians agree that this is the most likely explanation if the lyrics have any deeper meaning.

The Meaning of the Song’s Lyrics

Many historians believe the lyrics don’t have any deeper meaning.

This doesn’t sound as exciting, but it’s important to remember that “Ring Around the Rosie” became popular while many other children’s songs were becoming popular.

These include rhymes such as “Humpty Dumpty,” “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” and “Hey Diddle Diddle”.

Most historians agree with the theory that “Ring Around the Rosie” was just a simple game for kids to play at parties.

The “ring” was a circle of kids dancing together.

The last line of the song was a silly order that broke up the circle, like “squat,” “curtsy,” “fall down,” or “sneeze.”

Where Did The Theories and Urban Legends Come From?

If the “Ring Around the Rosie” lyrics don’t have a deeper meaning, where did all these urban tales come from?

People often look for hidden meanings in children’s songs.

However, most of the time, these songs don’t have any profound meaning.

“Ring Around the Rosie” isn’t as interesting when you realize that many historians don’t believe it’s linked with any deeper meaning, such as the Black Plague.

Nonetheless, it is still one of the most famous nursery rhymes of all time.

Cool Facts About “Ring Around the Rosie”

“Ring Around the Rosie” has many variations in different languages and cultures.

In France, for example, the game is called “J’ai perdu le do”; in Germany, it is called “Ringel, Ringel, Rosen.”

The song has been referenced in various works of pop culture, including the TV show “The Simpsons,” the movie “The Conjuring,” and the video game “BioShock Infinite.”

European and 19th-century versions of the rhyme show that this “fall” was not a literal falling down but a curtsy or other bending movement that was common in other dramatic singing games.

The symptoms mentioned don’t match up with the Great Plague very well.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK in March 2020, the traditional rhyme was joked about as the “ideal choice” for a song to play while people washed their hands to prevent infection.

This interpretation has become part of popular culture and has been used in other places to make vague references to the plague.

In 1949, a parodist wrote a version that referred to radiation sickness.

“Ring Around the Rosie” has been featured in several movies, including the 1991 film “Hook” and the 2019 movie “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.”

The song has also been the subject of various controversies over the years.

Some people have claimed the song is racist, while others have criticized it for promoting violence or being too morbid for children.

However, many experts argue that these claims are unfounded and that the song is a harmless and enjoyable part of childhood.

You may also like: Best Lullaby Songs

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

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