Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Black Death, Part 3 (of 4)

Concerning Nursery Rhymes

Ring around the rosie
A pocket full of posies
Ashes, Ashes
We all fall down!

"Everybody knows"* that the preceding nursery rhyme was composed about the Bubonic Plague. It covers it all: the red ring around the flea bite, the flowers carried constantly to help the bearer avoid the stench of death, the ashes from the mass burning of bodies, and the inevitable death of everyone. It's all about the Black Death, clearly.

Except that it isn't.

Bottom line: this poem appears in the 1880s and no earlier. Aha! (you say) But "everybody knows" that our illiterate forebears transmitted their knowledge orally, and so this rhyme was probably around for centuries before that! Hmmm. Ever played the parlor game (do we even call them "parlor games" anymore?) called "Telephone"? Now imagine a game of telephone that extends for generations ... centuries ... and winds up in Modern English saying exactly what we would expect it to say about an event that hit the cultural consciousness hundreds of years earlier. I doubt anyone could compute the odds of this, but I'm willing to bet that they would be on a par with the odds of a royal fizzbin, ie., astronomical.

It turns out that Snopes has an excellent entry dealing with this rhyme, its various nonsensical versions, and the tendency of people to ascribe meaning to random collections of words.

*If you have ever studied a subject thoroughly, then you know that this phrase from a lay person usually kicks off a conversation that will not end well for someone.

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