What Is the Real Meaning Behind ‘Ring Around the Rosie’?

(Last Updated On: January 16, 2020)


Many preschoolers around the world are taught the popular Ring Around the Rosie nursery rhyme. Many versions of the game involve singing the song and walking around in a circle with joined hands, and falling or curtseying at the very end. The most common American version of the rhyme usually goes something like this:

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

Like many nursery rhymes and folk songs, many varieties exist. The British version of the song has a slightly different third line, with “A-tishoo! A-tishoo!” rather than “ashes.” Folklore scholars have been searching for the origin of this very popular nursery rhyme and a few theories about it exist.

Ring Around the Black Death?

After World War II, folklorists theorized that the rhyme’s origin dated back to medieval Europe. Scholars saw similarities between the rhyme’s cryptic lyrics and the circumstances surrounding the deadly plague that swept across Europe and killed many millions of people. They thought the “ring-a-round the rosie” referred to a red circular rash common in some forms of plague. The posies would have represented the different flowers and herbs people carried to ward off disease. The “ashes” or “a-tishoo” and falling down was supposed to mimic sneezing and eventually dying from the disease.

The origin in plague-era medieval Europe took root in popular culture. However, more recent folklorists argue that the connection between Ring Around the Rosie and the Plague is overstated, if not entirely incorrect. Firstly, they state that the red ring symptom is not really that common of a plague symptom to begin with. Secondly, they argue that had the rhyme been born in that period, its lyrics would have undergone more radical changes. Some of the first recorded versions of this rhyme date back to the late 1800s, and today’s versions are very different from those. So it would make sense that today’s version would be even more different than the original, if the original was from the 1300 or 1400s, or even the 1600s.

Modern folklorists call the plague-origin theory “metafolklore” because it is essentially folklore about folklore. It managed to infiltrate academic discussions and scholars even repeated this metafolklore. Nevertheless, modern folklorists believe that the rhyme does not have a connection to the Black Death (or any other historical plague).

Sometimes, a Flower Is Just a Flower

While folklorists still have not decided on a single true meaning of the rhyme, different versions of the rhyme in other languages may give us some clues. While they are not word-for-word translations, there are a number of very similar versions of the rhyme in a bunch of European languages. The German version of the rhyme, whose first written version predates the English one by nearly one hundred years, has the same played-out actions as the English version, but involves singing about an elder bush. The Swiss version directly mentions a rose bush. Other versions, including the Dutch, Italian, and Serbian versions do just the same. This has lead some people to think that the “rosie” is just a plain rosebush, after all.

Perhaps the metafolklore about the origin of Ring Around the Rosie suggests that we should be more aware of the various urban legends that circulate under the false guise of history.