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What Are Some Of The Most Disturbing Nursery Rhymes?

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Susan Hayes Profile
Susan Hayes answered
Nursery rhymes appear all over the globe and are sung by generations of children, the simple rhymes and easy verses tripping off youthful tongues without any understanding as to what they really mean or the often dark images they conjure up.

Three Blind Mice


Three blind mice, three blind mice,
See how they run, see how they run,
They all ran after the farmer's wife,
Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
As three blind mice?
Three blind rodents bent on revenge against the woman who mutilated and tortured them by hacking off their tails.  Sounds more like a modern horror film than a child’s rhyme.

In 1609 a version of this rhyme was published in Deuteromelia, making this an old tale as well as a grim one. Some people have attempted to portray the ditty as referring to Queen Mary of England blinding and executing three Protestant bishops, adding another layer of gore to an already morbid song.  In 1842 it made its way into children’s literature and was published by James Orchard Halliwell, who apparently had no problem teaching children about knife wielding farmers.

Rock a bye Baby



Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
This soothing lullaby starts off gently, but ends with the snapping of tree limbs and the wee baby crashing down to the ground in a tangle of broken cradle bits and shattered foliage. Hardly a restful image for anyone who has learned the words, it is still crooned to babies and baby dolls every day.

It is theorized that this darkly worded warning about hanging babies from branches is really a reference to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  The baby is supposed to be the son of King James II, the “wind” that blows is the coming forces of political change and the “cradle” is the royal House of Stuart. If this is the case then not only is this rhyme full of grim imagery, but it’s the medieval equivalent of singing your infant to sleep with sound bites from CNN.

Ding Dong Dell


Ding, dong, bell,
Pussy’s in the well.
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Green.
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout.
What a naughty boy was that,
To try to drown poor pussy cat,
Who ne’er did him any harm,
But killed all the mice in the farmer's barn.
This song features a future serial killer practicing by trying to drown an innocent feline, or possibly trying to poison the village’s water supply.  The modern version first appeared in Mother Goose’s Melody around 1765, and in 1945 it was republished with new lyrics in an attempt to moderate the dark overtones, but the kindler and gentler version never really took off.

To add to the morbid element, it has been suggested that the origin of the song was the barbaric practice of “ducking”, a punishment often meted out to women who managed to become involved in scandalous behaviour. These women were often referred to as “pussies” and would be marched down to the well pond or village water source and repeated ducked under the water, sometimes resulting in their deaths.

Ladybug Ladybug/ Ladybird Ladybird


Ladybird, ladybird fly away home,
Your house is on fire and your children are gone,
All except one,
And her name is Ann,
And she hid under the baking pan.
Told to little children by parents who want their babies to grow up to be pyromaniacs or pastry chefs, this nasty bit of verse has been in existence since at least 1744 when it appeared in a collection of nursery rhymes.  Traditionally it is chanted when one of these cute little spotted bugs lands on a person.  If a gentle shoo does not remove the insect, it was common to chant this morbid ditty and then blow on the bug to get it to “fly away home”.  Oddly, the ladybird itself is considered to be lucky, as is having one land on your person. The reasons this supposedly lucky bug is linked to a song about fiery loss and death are lost to antiquity.

Who Killed Cock Robin


Who killed Cock Robin?
I, said the Sparrow,
with my bow and arrow,
I killed Cock Robin.
Who saw him die?
I, said the Fly,
with my little eye,
I saw him die.
Who caught his blood?
I, said the Fish,
with my little dish,
I caught his blood.
Who'll make the shroud?
I, said the Beetle,
with my thread and needle,
I'll make the shroud.
This list wouldn’t be complete without this gloomy bit of verse that details the gruesome murder of a sweet little red breasted bird.  From the murder’s confession to eye witness accounts of the deed, even the details of the burial are covered in this rhyme.

I cannot imagine the nightmares this inspired as children imagined tiny fish with dishes catch up the blood from a newly skewered robin as beetles swarm around the corpse stitching it into a tiny shroud.

Though the modern version was not published until the 18th century, many of the theories about its origins make it quite likely it is much older and it is so widely known around the globe that it is considered to be an archetype for murder. That’s right; this nursery rhyme is a template for murder. If that doesn’t qualify it as a horrifically grim thing to teach to children, I don’t know what does.

Goosey Goosey Gander


“Goosey goosey gander where shall I wander,
Upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber
There I met an old man who wouldn’t say his prayers,
I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stairs.”
This rhyme starts out reasonably well, with an apparently bored child wandering around his home looking for something to pass the time. Then the verse takes a turn for the dark side as this aspiring member of the Spanish Inquisition sets his sights on a hapless old man and hurls him down a flight of stairs for his apparent lack of piety.  

The message to children here is unmistakably violent and seems to encourage acts of violence as a form of entertainment, along with trespassing and a heaping amount of disrespect for one’s elders.   The 1784 version of this ditty does not contain the last two lines, and it appears to have been blended with another vicious nursery rhyme sometime in the 1800’s to become the charming version our children learn today.

Ring Around the Rosie


On a slightly different note, I did find one nursery rhyme whose dark history has been proven to be false.

Ring Around the rosie,
A pocket full of Posies
Ashes, Ashes, we all fall down.
Contrary to that email you have seen drifting around the internet, this rhyme is not about the plagues that swept across Europe during the dark ages, the ring around the mouth does not relate to the sores of plague victims, and the pocket full of posies do not refer to the bundles of herbs and flowers some used to “ward off” the plague. This song didn’t get published until 1881, over five centuries after the plagues had ended. It simply wasn’t in existence during the dark ages.  There are as many versions of this rhyme as there are theories as to what it really refers to, and many do not even contain the words that have attempted to link it to the plagues.

There are other theories, but the final word seems to be that there is no real meaning for this innocent collection of words, and it is nothing more than childish nonsense, which is after all, what a nursery rhyme should be.
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Anonymous answered
Alouette (French children's song)
Lyrics:
Alouette, gentille Alouette
Alouette je te plumerai
Alouette, gentille Alouette
Alouette je te plumerai
Je te plumerai la tete
Je te plumerai la tete
Et la tte, et la tete
Alouette, Alouette
O-o-o-o-oh
Alouette, gentille Alouette
Alouette je te plumerai

Translation:
Lark, nice Lark (or Lark, lovely Lark)
Lark, I am going to pluck you
I am going to pluck your head,
I am going to pluck your head,
And the head, and the head,
O-o-o-o-oh

All the verses are the same except the part of the body.
The usual ones are
La tete - the head
Le nez - the nose
Les yeux - the eyes
Le cou - the neck
Les ailes - the wings
Le dos - the back
Les pattes - the legs
Le queue - the tail

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