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Ring a Ring o' Roses

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"Ring a Ring o' Roses"
Melodies for "Ring a Ring o' Roses", Alice Gomme, 1898.[1]
Nursery rhyme
Audio samples

"Ring a Ring o' Roses" or "Ring a Ring o' Rosie" is an English nursery rhyme or folksong and playground singing game. It first appeared in print in 1881, but it is reported that a version was already being sung to the current tune in the 1790s and similar rhymes are known from across Europe. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 7925.


The cover of L. Leslie Brooke's Ring O' Roses (1922) shows nursery rhyme characters performing the game
The cover of L. Leslie Brooke's Ring O' Roses (1922) shows nursery rhyme characters performing the game

It is unknown what the earliest version of the rhyme was or when it began. Many incarnations of the game have a group of children form a ring, dance in a circle around a person, and stoop or curtsy with the final line. The slowest child to do so is faced with a penalty or becomes the "rosie" (literally: rose tree, from the French rosier) and takes their place in the center of the ring.

Variations, corruptions, and vulgarized versions were noted to be in use long before the earliest printed publications. One such variation was dated to be in use in Connecticut in the 1840s.[2]

Common British versions include:

Ring-a-ring o' roses,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! A-tishoo!
We all fall down.[3]

Common American versions include:

Ring-a-round the rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.[3]

Children's Dances by Hans Thoma.
Children's Dances by Hans Thoma.

Common Indian versions include:

Ringa ringa roses,
Pocket full of posies
Husha busha!
We all fall down![4][5]

Common Maori versions include:

Ring-a-round the roses,
A pocket full of posies,
Kohuru! Kohuru!
We all fall down.

The last two lines are sometimes varied to:

Hush! Hush! Hush! Hush!
We've all tumbled down.[3]

Early attestation

Kate Greenaway's illustration from Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes (1881), showing children playing the game
Kate Greenaway's illustration from Mother Goose or the Old Nursery Rhymes (1881), showing children playing the game

A reference to a young children's game named Ring o' Roses occurs in an 1846 article from the Brooklyn Eagle. A group of young children (the eldest being about seven) form a ring, from which a boy takes out a girl and kisses her.[6]

An early version of the rhyme occurs in a novel of 1855, The Old Homestead by Ann S. Stephens:

A ring – a ring of roses,
Laps full of posies;
Awake – awake!
Now come and make
A ring – a ring of roses.[7]

The novel goes on to describe a nineteenth-century Fourth of July celebration by children housed in a hospital in Roosevelt Island, New York (then known as "Blackwell's Island"): "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".[8]

Another early printing of the rhyme was in Kate Greenaway's 1881 edition of Mother Goose; or, the Old Nursery Rhymes:

A pocket full of posies;
Hush! hush! hush! hush!
'Ring a round of rosie is about death.
We're all tumbled down.[9]

In 1882, Godey's Lady's Book has the following version:

Ring around a rosy
Pocket full of posies.
One, two, three—squat![10]

Before the last line, the children stop suddenly, then exclaim it together, "suiting the action to the word with unfailing hilarity and complete satisfaction".[10]

In his Games and Songs of American Children (1883), William Wells Newell reports several variants, one of which he provides with a melody and dates to New Bedford, Massachusetts around 1790:

Ring a ring a Rosie,
A bottle full of posie,
All the girls in our town
Ring for little Josie.[2]

Newell writes that "[a]t the end of the words the children suddenly stoop, and the last to get down undergoes some penalty, or has to take the place of the child in the centre, who represents the 'rosie' (rose-tree; French, rosier)."[2]

An 1883 collection of Shropshire folk-lore includes the following version:

A ring, a ring o' roses,
A pocket-full o' posies;
One for Jack and one for Jim and one for little Moses!
A-tisha! a-tisha! a-tisha![11]

On the last line "they stand and imitate sneezing".[11]

A manuscript of rhymes collected in Lancashire at the same period gives three closely related versions, with the now familiar sneezing, for instance:

A ring, a ring o' roses,
A pocket full o' posies –
Atishoo atishoo we all fall down.[12]

In 1892, folklorist Alice Gomme could give twelve versions.[13]

Other languages

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, from The Little Mother Goose (1912)
Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith, from The Little Mother Goose (1912)

A German rhyme first printed in 1796 closely resembles "Ring a ring o'roses" in its first stanza[14] and accompanies the same actions (with sitting rather than falling as the concluding action):[15]

Ringel ringel reihen,
Wir sind der Kinder dreien,
sitzen unter'm Hollerbusch
Und machen alle Husch husch husch!

Loosely translated this says "Round about in rings / We three children / Sit beneath a elderbush / And we all go 'Hush, hush, hush'!" The rhyme is well known in Germany with the first line "Ringel, Ringel, Reihe" (as the popular collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn gave it); it has many local variants, often with "Husch, husch, husch" (which in German could mean "quick, quick" or "whoosh") in the fourth line,[16] comparable to the "Hush! hush! hush! hush!" of the first printed English version. This popular variant is notable:[17]

Ringel, Ringel, Rosen,
Schöne Aprikosen,
Veilchen blau, Vergissmeinnicht,
Alle Kinder setzen sich!

The translation is "A ring, a ring of roses. Beautiful apricots. Blue violets, forget-me-nots. All children sit down."

Swiss versions have the children dancing round a rosebush.[18] Other European singing games with a strong resemblance include "Roze, roze, meie" ("Rose, rose, May") from The Netherlands with a similar tune to "Ring a ring o' roses"[19] and "Gira, gira rosa" ("Circle, circle, rose"), recorded in Venice in 1874, in which girls danced around the girl in the middle who skipped and curtsied as demanded by the verses and at the end kissed the one she liked best, so choosing her for the middle.[20]

In Serbo-Croatian, there is a similar rhyme called "Ringe Ringe Raja":

Doš'o čika Paja,
Pa pojeo jaja.
Jedno jaje muć,
A mi, djeco, čuč!

A rough translation is "Ringe Ringe Raya [a common Serbo-Croatian nonsense word], uncle Ducky has come, and he ate all the eggs, one egg crashed, and we children squat!" On the last word, the children singing the rhyme jump or squat.

In Slovene, there is a similar rhyme called "Ringa, ringa raja":

Ringa, ringa raja,
muca pa nagaja,
kuža pa priteče,
pa vse na tla pomeče.

A rough translation is "Ringa, ringa raja [meaningless], the cat is being naughty, the dog comes running around, and throws everyone on the ground."

In Slovak, there is a similar rhyme called "Kolo, kolo mlynské":

Kolo, kolo mlynské
za štyri rýnske,
kolo sa nám polámalo
a do vody popadalo,
urobilo bác![citation needed]

A rough translation is "Wheel, wheel of a mill costing four rhenish guilders, the wheel broke, and fell into water, with a thud!"

In Italian the rhyme has two different versions. The shorter goes this way:

Giro Girotondo,
casca il mondo,
casca la Terra,
tutti giù per terra!

Which roughly translates this way: "(We) turn, turn around, the world falls down, Earth falls down, we all fall down (to the ground)!". It is to be noticed that in Italian the word terra means both Earth and ground. There is a slightly longer version that reads:

Giro Girotondo,
quant'è bello il mondo
il mondo dei bambini,
con tanti fiorellini.
Centocinquanta, la gallina canta,
canta sola sola, non vuole andare a scuola,
la gallina bianca e nera, ti dà la buonasera
ti dà la buonanotte, il lupo è dietro la porta,
la porta casca giù, il lupo non c'è più
A terra tutti giù!

The translation is: "(We) turn, turn around, how beautiful is the world, the world of the children, with many little flowers. One hundred fifty, the chicken sings, she sings all alone (because) she doesn't want to go to the school, the chicken is white and black, she says good evening, she says good night, the wolf hides behind the door, the door falls down, the wolf disappears and we all fall down!" While singing the longer version, children often form two circles one inside the other, which turn in opposite directions; when the verse changes, the direction of the circle changes too, and if someone goes wrong he or she is sent off.


Illustration by L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940) for "All Tumble Down" from Anon, Ring O' Roses (1922)
Illustration by L. Leslie Brooke (1862–1940) for "All Tumble Down" from Anon, Ring O' Roses (1922)

The origins and meanings of the game have long been unknown and subject to speculation. Folklore scholars, however, regard the Great Plague explanation that has been the most common since the mid-20th century as baseless.

Theories from the late 19th century

In 1898, A Dictionary of British Folklore contained the belief that an explanation of the game was of pagan origin, based on the Sheffield Glossary comparison of Jacob Grimm's Deutsche Mythologie. The theory states that it is in reference to Pagan myths and cited a passage which states, "Gifted children of fortune have the power to laugh roses, as Freyja wept gold." It claimed the first instance to be indicative of pagan beings of light. Another suggestion is more literal, that it was making a "ring" around the roses and bowing with the "all fall down" as a curtsy.[21] In 1892, the American writer, Eugene Field wrote a poem titled Teeny-Weeny that specifically referred to fey folk playing ring-a-rosie.[22]

According to Games and Songs of American Children, published in 1883, the "rosie" was a reference to the French word for rose tree and the children would dance and stoop to the person in the center.[2] Variations, especially more literal ones, were identified and noted with the literal falling down that would sever the connections to the game-rhyme. Again in 1898, sneezing was then noted to be indicative of many superstitious and supernatural beliefs across differing cultures.[21]

The Great Plague explanation of the mid-20th century

Since after the Second World War, the rhyme has often been associated with the Great Plague which happened in England in 1665, or with earlier outbreaks of the Black Death in England. Interpreters of the rhyme before World War II make no mention of this;[23] by 1951, however, it seems to have become well established as an explanation for the form of the rhyme that had become standard in the United Kingdom. Peter and Iona Opie, the leading authorities on nursery rhymes, remarked:

The invariable sneezing and falling down in modern English versions have given would-be origin finders the opportunity to say that the rhyme dates back to the Great Plague. A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and "all fall down" was exactly what happened.[24][25]

The line Ashes, Ashes in colonial versions of the rhyme is claimed to refer variously to cremation of the bodies, the burning of victims' houses, or blackening of their skin, and the theory has been adapted to be applied to other versions of the rhyme.[26]

In its various forms, the interpretation has entered into popular culture and has been used elsewhere to make oblique reference to the plague.[27] In 1949, a parodist composed a version alluding to radiation sickness:

A pocket full of uranium,
Hiro, shima
All fall down![28]

In March 2020, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom, the traditional rhyme was jokingly proposed as the "ideal choice" of song to accompany hand-washing in order to ward off infection.[29]


Folklore scholars regard the Great Plague explanation of the rhyme as baseless for several reasons:

  • The plague explanation did not appear until the mid-twentieth century.[20]
  • The symptoms described do not fit especially well with the Great Plague.[25][30]
  • The great variety of forms makes it unlikely that the modern form is the most ancient one, and the words on which the interpretation are based are not found in many of the earliest records of the rhyme (see above).[26][31]
  • European and 19th-century versions of the rhyme suggest that this "fall" was not a literal falling down, but a curtsy or other form of bending movement that was common in other dramatic singing games.[32]



  1. ^ Gomme, The Traditional Games of England, Scotland, and Ireland, p. 108.
  2. ^ a b c d Newell, William Wells (1884) [1883]. Games and Songs of American Children. New York: Harper & Brothers. pp. 127–128.
  3. ^ a b c Delamar (2001), pp. 38-9.
  4. ^ "Ringa Ringa Roses - India". Mama Lisa's World of Children and International Culture. Retrieved 2018-07-18.
  5. ^ "Ring a Ring a Roses, Ringa Ringa Roses - Poem Lyrics, Rhymes - Parenting Nation India". Retrieved 2018-07-18.
  6. ^ "Gleanings from the Writings of the late Wm. B. Marsh IV: Twilight Musings". Brooklyn Eagle. 1846-03-17. p. 2.
  7. ^ Stephens, Ann S. (1855). The Old Homestead. London: Sampson, Low, Son & Co. p. 213.
  8. ^ Stephens, op. cit, pp. 215–216
  9. ^ Greenaway, Kate (illustr.) (n.d.) [1881]. Mother Goose, or the Old Nursery Rhymes. London: Frederick Warne and Co. p. 52.
  10. ^ a b "Games". Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine. Philadelphia. cv (628): 379. October 1882.
  11. ^ a b Burne, Charlotte Sophia (ed.) (1883). Shropshire Folk-Lore. London: Trübner & Co. pp. 511–512.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  12. ^ Opie and Opie (1985), p. 222.
  13. ^ Opie and Opie (1951), p. 364.
  14. ^ The one commonly sung according to Böhme (1897), p. 438.
  15. ^ Böhme (1897), p. 438, Opie and Opie (1985), p. 225.
  16. ^ Böhme (1897), pp. 438–41, Opie and Opie (1985), p. 227. Other rhymes for the same game have some similarity in the first line, e.g. "Ringel, ringel, Rosenkranz", less in other lines – see Böhme (1897), 442–5.
  17. ^ "Deutsches Kinderlied und Kinderspiel. In Kassel aus Kindermund in Wort und Weise gesammelt von Johann Lewalter" (Kassel 1911), I Nr. 12. Hermann Dunger, "Kinderlieder und Kinderspiele aus dem Vogtlande" (Plauen 1874), p. 320. Böhme (1897)
  18. ^ Böhme (1897), p. 439, Opie and Opie (1985), p. 225.
  19. ^ Opie and Opie (1985), p. 227.
  20. ^ a b Opie and Opie (1985), p. 224.
  21. ^ a b Gomme, George Laurence (1898). A Dictionary of British Folklore. D. Nutt. pp. 110–111.
  22. ^ "Children's Column". The Osage City Free Press (Osage City, Kansas). 25 August 1892. p. 6. Retrieved 31 July 2015.
  23. ^ Opie and Opie (1985), pp. 221–222.
  24. ^ Opie and Opie (1951), p. 365.
  25. ^ a b Compare Opie and Opie (1985), p. 221, where they note that neither cure nor symptoms (except for death) feature prominently in contemporary or near contemporary accounts of the plague.
  26. ^ a b Mikkelson, Barbara; Mikkelson, David P. (2007-07-12). "Ring Around the Rosie". Urban Legends Reference Pages. Snopes. Retrieved 2007-01-10.
  27. ^ Opie and Opie (1985), p. 221, citing the use of the rhyme to headline an article on the plague village of Eyam in the Radio Times, 7 June 1973; title of "Ashes" in the New Scientist review.
  28. ^ "Christmas competition results – Nursery rhyme". The Observer. 9 January 1949. p. 6.; quoted in Opie and Opie (1951), p. 365.
  29. ^ "Letters – Viral news". Private Eye. No. 1518. 20 March 2020. p. 21.
  30. ^ J. Simpson and S. Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 296.
  31. ^ Opie and Opie (1985), pp. 222–223: "The following are the seven earliest reports known from in Britain ... In only four of these recordings is sneezing a feature". The point becomes stronger when American versions are also taken into account.
  32. ^ See above, and Opie and Opie (1951), p. 365, citing Chants Populaire du Languedoc: "Branle, calandre, La Fille d'Alexandre, La pêche bien mûre, Le rosier tout fleuri, Coucou toupi – En disant 'coucou toupi', tous les enfants quie forment la ronde, s'accroupissent", roughly translated: "The peach well ripe, the rose all blooming, cuckoo humming – When 'cuckoo humming' is said, all the children forming the circle crouch down".


This page was last edited on 16 September 2020, at 17:21
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