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What is a Nursery Rhyme?

Updated on March 20, 2011

History of Nursery Rhymes

A nursery rhyme is a rhymed verse associated with the nursery and early childhood. Despite their childlike simplicity, nursery rhymes have endured over the centuries and are known all over the world. A child's introduction to poetry is usually to nursery rhymes, such as Rockaby, Baby, on the Treetop; Humpty Dumpty Sat on a Wall; Hey Diddle Diddle; and Mary Had a Little Lamb. Nursery rhymes are among the earliest childhood memories and are never forgotten by some people. Many of the rhymes are mere doggerel, but others are close to true poetry, Until the 18th century, nursery rhymes were largely transmitted by word of mouth because they were regarded as too unimportant for written records. Many of them have been handed down in this way from generation to generation, although in each age some are discarded, and others are added.

The majority of nursery rhymes were not originally intended for children. Some of the principal sources of nursery rhymes are ballads, folk songs, old customs, proverbs, tavern songs, street vendors' cries, and historical events. However, the lullabies and verses that accompany children's games were usually created exclusively for a juvenile audience.

Kinds of Nursery Rhymes

There are many varieties of nursery rhymes. The greater number can be classified as riddles, lullabies, game rhymes, rhymes associated with numbers, and rhymes inspired by historical events or figures. Others include nonsense rhymes, tongue twisters, and cumulative verses, such as The House That Jack Built. However, there are a number of rhymes that do not fit into any category.


The riddle in verse form was highly popular in adult English society during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many of the old riddles would have been lost if they had not been preserved as nursery rhymes.

A famous example is Humpty-Dumpty, which contains a veiled description of a broken egg. It has been a great favorite among children for several hundred years.

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.

Another popular riddle, which dates back at least as far as 1600, is Two Legs Sat Upon Three Legs.

Two legs sat upon three legs
With one leg in his lap;
In comes four legs
And runs away with one leg;
Up jumps two legs,
Catches up three legs,
Throws it after four legs,
And makes him bring back one leg.

"Two legs" refers to a man, "three legs" to a stool, "four legs" to a dog, and "one leg" to a joint of meat.


References to lullabies and examples of them have been recorded in England since the 14th century. Since they are sung in order to lull babies to sleep, lullabies have also been known as cradlesongs and as slumber songs. One of the most popular lullabies for at least four centuries has been Rockaby, Baby.

Rockaby, baby, on the treetop,
When the wind blows, the cradle will rock;
When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,
Down will come baby, cradle, and all.

Almost equally well known is Bye-la, Baby Bunting.

Bye-la, baby bunting,
Daddy's gone a┬Ěhunting,
Gone to get a rabbit skin
To wrap the baby bunting in.

Game and Play Acting Rhymes

Many nursery rhymes are recited with accompanying gestures as a kind of playacting. A well-known example is This Little Pig Went to Market.

This little pig went to market,
This little pig stayed at home,
This little pig had roast beef,
This little pig had none,
And this little pig cried, "Wee-wee-wee,"
All the way home.

As the mother recites the rhyme, she plays a game with the child's toes, each of which represents one of the pigs in the rhyme. Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker's Man is an old rhyme recited to the child with appropriate gestures.

Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man,
Bake me a cake as fast as you can;
Roll it, and pat it, and mark it with a T.
Put it in the oven for Tommy and me.

The following rhyme is often recited by a parent as he bounces a child on his knee.

To market, to market,
To buy a fat pig,
Home again, home again,
To market, to market,
To buy a fat hog,
Home again, home again,

Perhaps one of the favorite rhymes accompanied by gestures is Here's the Church.

Here's the church;
And here's the steeple;
Open the door,
And see all the people.

In the first line the hands are clasped with interlocking fingers to make a church. In the second line the two forefingers are raised and touch each other to indicate the steeple. In the third line the thumbs are separated to open the door. In the last line the hands are spread apart just enough to reveal finger ends, or "people," inside.

Number Rhymes

Rhymes in which numbers are emphasized have two main purposes. They are used to teach children to count. They are also useful for games in which one child is Singled out for a special part. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe illustrates the first type of number rhyme.

One, two,
Buckle my shoe;
Three, four,
Shut the door;
Five, six,
Pick up sticks;
Seven, eight,
Lay them straight;
Nine, ten,
A big fat hen.

There are numerous counting-out rhymes used to choose the child who will be "it" in a game. Probably the best known of these rhymes is Eenie, Meenie, Minie, Mo.

Eenie, meenie, minie, mo,
Catch a baby by the toe,
If he hollers let him go,
Eenie, meenie, millie, mo.

Sometimes other words, such as "rooster" or "rabbit," are substituted for "baby" (perhaps because of the child abuse implications when you let him go!).

History Rhymes

Many of the attempts made to identify nursery rhymes with real happenings and people are farfetched. However, some rhymes are known to have been inspired by history. For example, Elsie Marley, an Englishwoman who lived during the 18th century, inspired the rhyme

Elsie Marley is grown so fine,
She won't get up to feed the swine,
But lies in bed till eight or nine,
Lazy Elsie Marley

Little Jack Horner supposedly refers to the theft by a certain Jack Horner of a property deed from a Christmas pie intended for King Henry VIII of England. A nursery rhyme with a historical background of particular interest is The Queen of Hearts.

The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts,
All on a summer's day;
The Knave of Hearts
He stole the tarts,
And took them clean away.
The King of Hearts
Called for the tarts,
And beat the knave full sore;
The Knave of Hearts
Brought back the tarts,
And vowed he'd steal no more.

Elizabeth Stuart, who became the Queen of Bohemia, was called the Queen of Hearts because of her beauty.

The summer's day on which she made tarts is thought to refer to the period between her marriage in 1613 and the death of the Holy Roman emperor Matthias in 1619. The emperor's death created the problem of a successor. His adopted son, Ferdinand, was the Knave of Hearts. Ferdinand's desire to become emperor is represented in the verse as a theft of the tarts. Elizabeth, however, gave the enticing "tart" of the throne of Bohemia to her husband, Frederick the Winter King, who was the King of Hearts. Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Ferdinand soon dethroned Frederick. The authorship of the rhyme is attributed to one of the daughters of Elizabeth and Frederick.

Origins of Nursery Rhymes

The nursery rhymes used today are not so old as scholars once believed. For example, even if a King Cole really lived in Britain in about the 3rd century A.D., this does not mean that the rhyme Old King Cole was composed at that time. Most surviving rhymes probably date from the 17th century or later. However, there is evidence both from the New Testament and from references in ancient Latin literature that there were nursery rhymes in antiquity similar to those now known. The oldest surviving nursery rhymes are probably the counting-out rhymes, a number of children's game verses, and many of the riddles.


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