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Nursery Rhyme Origins and Meaning

By bethalix Nov 05, 2012 742 Words
The most common version of the rhyme is: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, She had so many children, she didn't know what to do; She gave them some broth without any bread; Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed. The earliest printed version in Joseph Ritson's Gammer Gurton's Garland in 1794 has the coarser last line: She whipp'd all their bums, and sent them to bed. There were many other variations printed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Origins and meaning

lona and peter opie pointed to the version published in Infant Institutes in 1797, which finished with the lines: Then out went th' old woman to bespeak 'em a coffin, And when she came back, she found 'em all a-loffeing. The term "a-loffeing", they believed, was Shakespearean, suggesting that the rhyme is considerably older than the first printed versions. They then speculated that if this were true it might have a folk lore meaning and pointed to the connection between shoes and marriage, symbolised by casting a shoe when a bride leaves for her honeymoon. Debates over the meaning of the rhyme largely revolve around matching the old woman with historical figures, as Peter Opie observed 'for little reason other than the size of their families'. At first glance this would appear to be a purely nonsense rhyme but in fact it has origins in history! There are two choices of origin. The first relates to Queen Caroline (the old woman) wife of George II who had eight children. The shoe refers to the British Isles. The second version refers to King George who began the fashion of wearing white powdered wigs and was consequently referred to as the old woman! The children were the members of parliament and the bed was the Houses of Parliament which he required them to have sessions in - even today the term 'whip' is used in the English Parliament to describe a member of Parliament who is tasked to ensure that all members 'toe the party line'. This could see social services getting involved or other agencies at today’s world, because of overcrowding, fear of safety for the children, every child matters. In this rhyme it is an issue of safeguarding that the ‘shoe’ is overcrowded and that means that we would have to get other agencies involved. When this rhyme was written it was un heard of to have so many children without a husband or the father living with you, this would have been a bad thing back then socially, although nowadays it is not un heard of, if not common.

It can be supposed that a lot of people have heard the debate about whether the nursery rhyme “Baa, Baa, black sheep“ is racist and whether it should be banned from school. The supporter of this idea sees a relationship between this song and the slave trade, but it is impossible to find any concrete facts supporting this affirmation. There is no doubt that the black sheep is a problem, but this problem has nothing to do with the colour of the sheep, but what the sheep can provide. Another issue is that the question, “Have you any wool?” is directed to the sheep and that doesn’t’ make any sense. This question could be addressed to the shepherd of the herd or to the owner, but not to a sheep. The correct version, which would word as well with the music, because the amounts of syllables are the same, would be: Baa, baa, shepherd, Have you any wool? But we must admit that this doesn’t work very well with the sheep’s cry of “baa, baa“. It seems that there is no logical reason for addressing the question to a sheep and therefore it is probably all about the phonetics. Concerning the colour black sheep, some people may think of the famous “black sheep“ - a scoundrel, an outcast, someone out of the ordinary - but the widespread idea, is that the song is about taxes imposed on wool in the middle ages. This nursery rhyme has since been changed to ‘rainbow sheep’ or ‘white sheep’ which can still be classed as racist as black is not in the rainbow either and people with ‘white’ skin could find white sheep offensive. This shows discrimination as they focus on a black sheep, it isn’t equal opportunities as they don’t show any interest in white sheep.

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