18 January 2008

The Roots of “A Ring of Roses”

The Child_Lit email list has been discussing the legend that the nursery rhyme "Ring Around the Rosy" (or "Ring Around the Roses," or "Ring a, Ring a Rosy") refers to an outbreak of the bubonic plague. Iona and Peter Opie and other folklorists have looked into this hypothesis and found no evidence to support it. Though some details of some versions of the rhyme can be interpreted as referring to aspects of the plague or remedies against it, those details can also be interpreted in other ways, and those details don't appear in all the versions--particularly the oldest.

In fact, no one has found a hint of the rhyme before the late eighteenth century. Scholars said the earliest print appearances occurred in the 1880s:

  • Kate Greenaway's Mother Goose, or the Old Nursery Rhymes (Routledge, 1881--University of California Press edition above).
  • William Wells Newell's Games and Songs of American Children (Harper, 1883), which dates one version (without source) to New Bedford around 1790 and another version to Connecticut in the 1840s.
  • Georgina F. Jackson and Charlotte Sophia Burne’s Shropshire Folk-Lore (Trubner, 1883).
  • Sidney Oldall Addy’s A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Sheffield (English Dialect Society, 1888).
  • Henry Carrington Bolton’s The Counting-Out Rhymes of Children (Appleton, 1888).
However, through the magic of Google Books, I found a version of the rhyme published in 1855--a quarter-century before these citations. It appears in The Old Homestead, published in New York (Bunce & Brother) and London (Sampson Low, Son & Co.). The author of this novel was Ann S. Stephens (1813-1886) of Connecticut.

Her epigraph for chapter 23, “The Festival of Roses,” reads:
A ring--a ring of roses,
Laps full of posies;
Awake--awake!
Now come and make
A ring--a ring of roses.
Later in that chapter, Stephens writes:
Then the little girls began to seek their own amusements. They played "hide and seek," "ring, ring a rosy," and a thousand wild and pretty games...
This version offers no more support for the plague theory.

(This is the second time this week I’ve found a word or phrase used earlier than what a standard reference book says about it. Google Books's keyword search is changing the world.)

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