Thursday, October 27, 2011

don't tell me you don't know

i can't remember which class it was, or even if it was high school or undergrad, but i remember once learning about the origins/meanings behind nursery rhymes and finding them fascinating. i recently came across the meaning behind "peter, peter, pumpkin eater" and my interest was rekindled. my interpretation growing up of some of them was so off base it's ridiculous. here are a few rhymes, what i thought they meant, and what they really mean.

baa baa black sheep,
have you any wool?
yes sir, yes sir, three bags full:
one for my master, one for my dame, 
one for the little boy who lives down the lane

growing up, i thought with full conviction that this was just about a talking black sheep who had three bags of wool to give to specific people. 

i was originally taught that this rhyme was about the taxes people were suffering from in 1275 to the fifteenth century when they had to give, roughly, one third to the king and one third to the church and only keep one third for themselves. apparently now people are arguing this origin, but being the first one i ever learned, i thought i'd put it here anyway. 

fun fact: baa baa black sheep was one of the first songs ever to be digitally recorded and played on a computer in 1951.

jack sprat could eat no fat,
his wife could eat no lean,
and so between the two of them
they licked the platter clean.

growing up, i thought this was about a married couple with digestion problems. jack could eat nothing fatty and his wife only like fatty things. they were a perfect match because they could perfectly finish a plate between them.

instead, jack sprat is reputed to be king charles the first, and his wife henrietta maria. king charles apparently wanted to wage war on spain, but parliament wouldn't finance it (so he was lean). he dismembered parliament and his wife imposed an illegal war tax (to get some fat). 

jack and jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.
jack fell down and broke his crown,
and jill came tumbling after.

this of course was about two kids who went to a well on the top of the hill. i always believed that jack fell own, broke his head, and died which made jill faint and she tumbled down the hill too. she didn't die, though.

the roots of this rhyme lay in france, and the title characters refer to king louis xvi and queen marie antoinette. during the reign of terror, he was beheaded first (lost his crown) and she followed. 

peter, peter, pumpkin eater
had a wife but couldn't keep her.
he put her in a pumpkin shell,
and there he kept her very well.

i always (up until recently) thought this was about a dude named peter that couldn't keep his wife. (my reasons for this ranged from he didn't have a house to it was a secret marriage.) anyway, he sticks her in a huge pumpkin house, and they live happily every after.

this rhyme was started in america to warn young girls away from infidelity. apparently, peter's wife wasn't the most faithful. his way to deal with this was to kill her and hide her body in a pumpkin shell. after that, he could make sure she never betrayed him. 

*Over It - Relient K


  1. Pumpkin eater is slightly if not completely disturbing.

    Jack and Jill was the only one I recognized. I never was a nursery rhyme type of kid. But I always thought he was the prince and she was like the "commoner" best friend. The castle caught fire, so she went inside to save him, and when they got out, he couldn't just watch it burn, so he went up the hill to maybe try and get water from the well to put it out. But along the way, Jack fell, nothing drastic, just a trip. But when Jill went after to fix his crown, she fell down too, all the way down.

  2. i love how we grew up getting completely different stories out of the same rhyme. yours is way more creative, though. i feel like my younger self was a little too dark and literal.