Ring a Ring o’ roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down.
Ring a Ring o’ roses, a child’s rhyming game, has entertained children for many years. I grew up knowing it as “ring-around-a-rosy” and often left my friends and I in a dizzy fit of laughter. However, reportedly, the origins of this song and dance routine occurred during a dark time in history. From 1665-1666, the Great Plague of London decimated England. Within London, around 70,000 died, a large percentage of the city’s total population of 460,000. Legend has it that the rhyming game found it’s origins during that event, though it was first printed in 1881 by Kate Greenaway.
Those that believe the nursery rhyme has its origins during the plague base it on the following verse breakdown:
Ring a Ring o’ roses – An early symptom of the plague was a red, circular rash.
A pocket full of posies - One superstition was that posies would help protect against the disease, so they would carry the herb with them. It was also used as a fragrance against the disease’s smell.
A-tishoo! A-tishoo! – Sneezing or coughing was one of the last symptoms before death. In later rhyme versions, Ashes! Ashes!, replaces this sentence. The bodies of plague victims were usually cremated, so this later adaption still works within the original idea.
We all fall down - This last line states the final result of the plague - death.
Regardless of its actual origins, whether in a dark period of history or a modern (less dark) one, Ring a Ring o’ roses has entertained children for generations. The words vary from area to area but the end result tends to be the same – mass dizziness and giggles!
Panati, Charles. Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things. New York: Harper & Row, 1987, 196.
The Great Plague