Nursery rhymes aren’t all pudding and pie. They seem innocent enough, but Jack and Jill may have been up to no good on that hill. To fetch a pail of water? Doubtful. If you look closer at a few of the tales we learned by heart as kids – even Mother Goose – you’ll start to see dismemberment, imprisonment and all sorts of other violent mayhem. Although whitewashed over time, the early Victorians used some pretty nasty themes in order to instruct their youth about the pitfalls of life. Domestic violence is one of the more popular motifs, from run-of-the-mill abuse to full-on murder. The big message here was to be an obedient wife.
One example of this is taken from the oddly titled, Rhymes for the Nursery from 1824:
I married a wife on Sunday,
She began to scold on Monday,
Bad was she on Tuesday,
Middling was she on Wednesday,
Worse she was on Thursday,
Dead was she on Friday,
Glad was I on Saturday night,
To bury my wife on Sunday.
Yet women weren’t the only ones to suffer. Plenty of men, children, pets and wildlife get their fair share of violence as well. So in the 1950s, Geoffrey Handley-Taylor started to dig deeper into the rhymes to clean them up. This early rating system came back with the numbers which included: 8 allusions to murder (unclassified); 2 cases of choking to death; 1 case of cutting a person in half; 1 case of death by devouring; 15 allusions to maimed human beings or animals and 23 cases of physical violence.
Ok, so a lot of the super violent imagery has been censored – but what of the Victorian warnings about sex?
Well, if we think about the word ‘tit’ from the “Tell Tale Tit” rhyme, it is very sexualized for us, but actually, this word has been in use for a very long time. Webster’s Dictionary from 1828 describes it as “the nipple”. The same entry, strangely enough, identifies a tit as a tiny horse which means that it evolved to mean anything small: tittering, tit-bits (predecessor to tid-bits). A tell tale tit is, therefore, just a little crybaby.
Tell Tale Tit,
Your tongue shall be slit;
And all the dogs in the town
Shall have a little bit.
Is it just that we have over-sexualized the words since then? Have other words been de-sexualized today?
Goosey, goosey, gander, where shall I wander?
Up stairs, down stairs, and in my lady’s chamber.
There I met an old man who would not say his prayers,
Take him by the left leg, throw him down the stairs.
Even by 1889, “goosey gander” was children’s slang for ‘idiot’, but the phrase had to come from somewhere. Some people think it is a husband’s “gander month”—the last month of his wife’s pregnancy, when, in the old days, she’d go into seclusion and not leave her home for fear of shocking the public. Seriously. Now free of her ugly condition, her husband was free to wander through any ladies’ chambers he wanted. Other interpretations see the ‘goose’ as simply a prostitute, which were commonly called “geese” in the 18th century. Was this a warning to prevent the spread of general diseases, which were known as “goose bumps” back then.
Which brings us back to the famous duo – Jack and Jill. If Jack was fetching anything, it was a metaphorical pail of water – if he lost anything, it wasn’t his crown, but most likely his virginity that was broken. These ‘nursery’ rhymes were clearly once adult songs that were sung to kids because they were the only songs most adults knew – created to share moral lessons at a time when very few could read or write.