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Ring a Ring a Roses

Debunking the Rhyme

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The Myth:

The British children’s rhyme ‘Ring a Ring a Roses’ is all about the plague - either the Great Plague of 1665-6, or the Black Death centuries earlier - and dates from those eras.

The Truth:

The earliest known use of the rhyme is the Victorian era, and it almost certainly doesn’t date back to the plague (any of them). While the lyrics can be interpreted as being loosely connected to death and plague prevention, this is believed to be just that, an interpretation, and not a direct result of plague experience.

A Children’s Rhyme

There are many variations in the words of the rhyme, but a common variant is:

Ring a ring a roses
A pocket full of poses
Atishoo, Atishoo
We all fall down

The last line is often followed by the singers, usually children, all falling down. You can certainly see how that variant sounds like it might be something to do with plague: the first two lines as references to the bundles of flowers and herbs which people wore to ward away plague, and the latter two lines referring to illness (sneezing) and death. One common variant involves ‘ashes’ instead of ‘atishoo’, and is interpreted as cremation or skin blackening. However, folklorists and historians now believe that the plague claims date only from the mid twentieth century, when it became popular to give rhymes and sayings older origins. However, so widespread was the rhyme in England, and so deep in children’s consciousness did it lodge, that many adults now connect it to the plague.

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