The Grammarphobia Blog

Ringing in the posies!

Q: The “Ring a ring of rosy” nursery rhyme I heard growing up in Britain ends with “Atchoo, atchoo, / We all fall down.” The “atchoo” is someone sneezing, I was told, and it’s about the Great Plague. Not a very happy rhyme, is it?

A: Many people believe, as you were told, that the children’s rhyme has something to do with the Great Plague of London in 1665. But the available evidence doesn’t support that theory, according to the language sleuths who’ve looked into the issue.

Hugh Rawson, in his book Devious Derivations, notes that the rhyme wasn’t included in the first book of English nursery rhymes, Tom Thumb’s Pretty Song Book (1744), which was published 79 years after the plague.

In fact, the rhyme didn’t appear in print until well over two centuries after the plague. And when it did appear, sneezing wasn’t mentioned. Here’s the earliest known version of the rhyme, published in an 1881 edition of Mother Goose illustrated by Kate Greenaway:

Ring-a-ring-a-roses,
A pocket full of posies;
Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush!
We’ve all tumbled down.

There have been many other versions since then. Here’s the one I heard growing up in Iowa:

Ring around the rosy,
A pocketful of posy,
Ashes, ashes,
All fall down.

Unfortunately, many of the most interesting word or phrase origins turn out to be myths. Well, perhaps not unfortunately, since the subject of my next book will be myths about English.

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