Book Quote:

“For all of us, the first things we are taught, after learning how to talk, are nursery rhymes. Hence, by the time we are adults, we will know the words to hundreds of them without ever being aware of their meaning or real importance. And they are important, in myview, because many of them tell the true tale of some of history’s darkest or most tragic events.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (NOV 26, 2009)

One of my earliest childhood memories involves singing “Ring-A-Ring O’ Roses” with some fellow kindergarteners. We assumed the rhyme was some general gibberish especially because in our modified version it became “Ring Around the Roses” and we substituted “Hushaa Hoosha” for the actual “Atishoo, Atishoo.” Many years later, I found out that the rhyme might have a darker connation with it signifying people collapsing to the plague.

In his fun and fascinating book, Pop Goes the Weasel: The Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes, writer Albert Jack found that the darker meaning to the rhyme was speculative at best (since the symptoms described didn’t actually match the symptoms of the disease) and that research showed that the rhyme is in fact just a harmless children’s party game.

On the other hand, quite a few other seemingly innocuous rhymes actually have dark underlying meanings—many denoting significant historical events. Jack has done the groundwork for many of these in his entertaining book. For example, “Baa Baa Black Sheep” was actually a lament about a wool tax levied by King Edward I in 1275.

Recently, the BBC was under fire for changing the words of Humpty Dumpty on a children’s program to make the ending more kid-friendly. The revised version had “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” managing to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. This rewriting has created a mini uproar over just how far tales can be watered down for children’s consumption. If the players in this controversy had all read Albert Jack’s entertaining book, maybe they wouldn’t have been in such a rush to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. Because, as it turns out, “Humpty Dumpty” was actually a weapon of mass destruction—a cannon. Now that is the sort of thing that makes for a good dose of old-fashioned British irony.

The details of this history and many others are fun to unearth and make for entertaining reading. In the book’s introduction, Jack makes the point that the rhymes are a part of history and should therefore be treasured. He also points out that they were a means of communication coded to be not noticeable as they were passed around under oppressive regimes and climates. If that is indeed the case, one wonders if the people in the olden days didn’t have as much trouble decoding the true meanings of the rhymes almost as much as we do now. After all it takes a leap of imagination to go from:

Baa, baa, black sheep.
Have you any wool?
Yes, sir, yes, sir,
Three bags full:
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

to interpreting the verse as a tax levied on wool, does it not?

Also, while the book is quite fascinating, I am not sure how many Americans—except for the die-hard enthusiasts—will be able to relate to the history of ancient England to truly appreciate all the layers of history tucked into these rhymes. Incidentally, there is a cool aside in here about how “The Star-Spangled Banner” started out as a drinking song in eighteenth-century London.

Pop Goes the Weasel makes for good reading—maybe not at a stretch—but for occasional foraging. In that sense a coffee table format for the book would have been even better, but this one will do just as well. It’s an entertaining read especially for trivia lovers.

It is in here for example, that you will learn that the famous two-fingered “V” sign for victory evolved from the gestures of archers fighting at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. “The myth claims that when the French captured English archers, they cut off the two fingers used to pull back the bowstring to ensure they could no longer use their bows against them. As a result, those who had not been handicapped in this way would show their defiance by waving two fingers to their enemy, illustrating they were still capable of beating them,” Jack writes.

It is quite evident from this one piece of trivia that Jack’s research leads him to some pretty dark material. It’s still pretty cool though. As my 12-year-old daughter—who also liked the book—put it: “It’s full of random, awesome facts.” I agree.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from x readers (not yet rated)
PUBLISHER: Perigee Trade (September 29, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AMAZON PAGE: Pop Goes the Weasel: the Secret Meanings of Nursery Rhymes
EXTRAS: Penguin interview with Albert Jack


MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Creative use of Nursery Rhymes…

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November 26, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Non-fiction

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