Childhood Phrases and Their Darker Meanings

From "step on a crack…" to nursery rhymes, I can’t believe we let children speak these words!

Ever since I was very young, we used to have so many different sayings and songs we’d sing that seemed entirely innocent. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that children all over the country had heard these little songs and sayings, and so I decided to search the origins of some of these little phrases we would innocently sing around the neighborhoods as we were growing up, and I was quite disturbed about what I found. Each phrase had a dark history, making me wonder why we would teach them to our children in the first place. Let’s tale a look at a few, shall we?

We’ll start with this one: “Step on a crack, you break your mother’s back.” Now, the first time you hear this little phrase, it sounds pretty grotesque, and if you had friends like mine, if their mothers would make them angry, they would stomp as hard as they could on as many cracks as they could. But where does it come from? Though it may have originated earlier, it believed to have started as a racial saying in the United States by white parents, who would tell their children “step on a crack, your mother will turn black,” or something very similar. It is believed to have originated in the early 20th century, though it may have come up much earlier than this. In the time, there was no mixing of race, and children would be taught never to step on the cracks, lest their mother would turn into what was considered almost as a curse, a black woman. If a woman stepped on it, it was believed she would end up marrying a black man, and have many black babies, which was also frowned upon in the time period. It later evolved into stepping on cracks would cause the child to get eaten by a bear, though I’m not sure how it was construed to this. Over the years, it slowly changed into the phrase we know today.

Next we will move on to the song “ring around the rosey,” in which children will join hands and jump in a circle, and “all fall down” at the same time. To many, this is just another innocent child’s game, but it boasts a much darker origin. The song refers to the time of the bubonic plague that swept the Eastern hemisphere. During the plague, infected individuals would show disgusting looking sores that were referred to as “rosies.” As the infection began to take over the individual’s body, rings would begin to appear about these “rosies.” Not much later, the individual would die. Now these individuals were extremely contagious, and so “posies” were placed into the pockets of these individuals to let others know to keep away from them, hence “pockets full of posies.” Once the individual had died and been marked, their body would be burned to stop the infection, hence “ashes ashes…” “We all fall down” refers to the idea that most people in the world believed that this would be the disease to wipe out mankind, which isn’t too much of a stretch, seeing as how most individuals were extremely religious but also the antithesis of devout religious followers, and so they must have believed God was punishing the world for their behavior. This is a great song for children, eh?

Humpty Dumpty in itself sounds like a pretty dark nursery rhyme, doesn’t it? An egg falls off a wall, more or less explodes, and nobody can put it together again; sounds a bit morbid honestly. This nursery rhyme actually originates from the English Civil War during the 1600s. Humpty Dumpty was a rather large cannon in the city of Colchester that was being defended by the Royalist army(the city). The city had a rather large wall that would protect it from attack, and so during a siege, the enemy happened to knock out part of the wall underneath the cannon. This caused the cannon to fall to the ground below, and all able-body soldiers attempted to raise the cannon back up on the pedestal to try and protect the city. As the rhyme insists, not even the combined power of the king’s horses and soldiers could pull the cannon back up onto the wall, and eventually the Royalists had to surrender the city, as the death toll was beginning to mount rapidly.

Jack and Jill sounds a bit more peaceful, doesn’t it? They went up a hill to get water, but fell down, and so Jack goes home to bandage himself up. Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? Well the original rhyme ended after “Jill came tumbling after,” and refers to the reign of Louis XVI in France at the end of the French Civil War, one of the bloodiest, and probably most personal war, in French history. “Rebels” were ruthless in taking out the Royal Guard and all other soldiers, tearing them apart literally. “Jack” in the rhyme refers to Louis XVI, and “Jill” refers to his wife Marie Antoinette, who ruled as king and queen during the war. Under the control of Louis XIV, France experienced prosperity, but his grandson, Louis XVI basically brought the country into debt, in part due to his Marie. At the end of the Civil War, the king “lost his crown,” which refers to him being beheaded by “la guillotine,” a reference made in the novel in Tale of Two Cities. Soon after his beheading, Marie’s head “came tumbling after,” referring to her beheading soon after Louis XVI.

These are just a few of the many nursery rhymes that many children would sing when they were young, and continue to do now. I’m surprised we let the youth sing these rhymes, given their references to some of written history’s darkest times. There are plenty more out there, and if you have any you can think of and know the origin to, please feel free to share, and as always, thanks for reading.

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13 Comments
  1. Posted July 4, 2011 at 2:26 am

    great one thanks

  2. Posted July 4, 2011 at 6:35 am

    good post

  3. Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:13 am

    There can be disturbing implications for a lot of childhood phrases.

  4. Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:24 am

    nice one

  5. Posted July 4, 2011 at 8:38 am

    There can be hidden and dark meanings even in childhood phrases!

  6. Posted July 11, 2011 at 8:29 am

    Nice share. Very historical accounts here. thanks

  7. Posted July 12, 2011 at 6:23 am

    I never knew any historical background of nursery rhyme before, and I’m surprised that some of them have dark meanings and histories behind them. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Posted July 16, 2011 at 4:33 am

    I love this sort of thing, someone I worked with used to know all the nursery rhymes origins, some are pretty awful.

    Never heard the step on the crack one, but I guess in the UK its not something we would hear unless we saw it in a film or read it in a book!

  9. Posted July 17, 2011 at 4:44 am

    Great aricle. When you think about it several of the fables/nursery rhymes we tell are childer are dark in meaning. It is interesting to know the origins behind them. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Posted July 23, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Very nice article, again.

  11. Posted August 13, 2011 at 2:12 am

    I heard about ‘Ring Around the Rosie’ darker meaning before, but not ‘Step on a Crack and Break Your Mother’s Back’ or ‘Jack and Jill’. I learn something everyday from my most favourite Triond writer!

  12. Posted September 1, 2011 at 9:37 am

    nice one.

  13. Posted November 29, 2011 at 3:50 am

    childhood is full of innocence.

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