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

Do you remember being a young kid? If so, you likely remember playing on the playground in elementary school or maybe in the back yard of a grandparent or friend’s house.

If you recall these halcyon salad days, then perhaps you also recall joining hands with some young friends and singing the lyrics to the nursery rhyme, “Ring around the Rosie.”

Ring around the rosie
pocket full of positions
ashes, ashes
we all fall down!

And then the kids, after singing the song, holding hands, and moving in a circle, would drop to the ground and laugh! Ah, the good ol’ days.

Meaning Behind the Lyrics.

But perhaps later as an adult, you learned the truth: that “Ring Around the Rosie” is really a deathly little poem all about the bubonic plague in London in the 1600s. ‘My God,’ you may have thought, how could children sing about things like this?

You learned in that moment that the meaning of the little ditty was not a cute nonsense nursery rhyme, but rather a chant of the damned.

Ring around the Rosie meant the itchy rash around the infected sore of a person sick with the plague.

Pocket full of posies were the flower pedals that plagued doctors showered upon their deceased patients, which also helped to ward off their odor.

Ashes, ashes meant the cremated remains of the deceased.

And yes, whether sick or not: we all fall down (at the end of our lives).

(Eerie fun fact: During the COVD-19 pandemic lockdown, the song was used as a way to ensure one has washed their hands long enough, about 15 seconds.)

But wait, dear reader! Do not believe all you’ve heard!

Evidence to the Contrary.

In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that the nursery rhyme does not come from these deathly origins. In fact, in all likelihood, that’s not at all where the verse comes from.

Here’s why:

The first recorded version of the nursery rhyme did not show up until the mid-1800s, some 200 years after the plague. One would think that if 1/3 of Europe—ie 50 million people—died and a convenient little nursery rhyme had come up to commemorate their demise, someone would have written it down a time or two prior to the mid-1800s.

What’s more likely is the rhyme was really just a fun game that manifested later, after the Great Plague, and it was just a ditty for kids. Likely, they joined hands around a flower bush or a rose tree (in French: Rosier), circled it a few times and fell down laughing (or even sneezing from the flower’s pollen). Or perhaps, as some say, the “fall” meant a type of curtsy.

There are a great many variations of the verse, from German to Indian and each is different. Some include different breads, some include terms like “Husha busha!” or “Red Bird Blue Bird.” The fact that so many variants exist means that it likely did not originate via a single historical event like the Great Plague.

Conclusion.

We’re no doctors, but health experts also have noted that the “symptoms” described in the common American version of “Ring Around the Rosie” are not consistent with those of the Great Plague. And, we’ll add, if you were a parent and your child started singing about a plague, wouldn’t you tell them not to? But we digress…

In the end, what the song means remains (at least somewhat) up to interpretation. That means: it’s left up to you. Do you want to believe it was born of the Black Plague? Or that it (likely) came much later in history and has only been retrofitted after the possible eerie meaning was landed on?

Either way, you’ll have all this to chomp on the next time you’re with some pals and feeling nostalgic in a rose garden.

Photo: Getty Images

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