Nursery Rhymes: Language & History

Mother Goose in History

Many children grow up with a copy of Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes on their bookshelves; in fact, I can remember our copy quite clearly because it was practically an antique with yellowed pages.  Eventually, our mother got us a colorful, updated version of the rhymes – really, so we wouldn’t ruin that beautiful book!

Nursery Rhymes are generally described as short rhyming songs or poems that have been passed down through oral storytelling.  For example, this little rhyme about Mother Goose is considered a nursery rhyme.

Old Mother Goose Illustration by Frederick Richardson

In fact, many of the nursery rhymes we know are actually centuries old – even dating back to the 14th and 15th century. The chapbook, which was basically a little pamphlet with crude wooden stamped drawings, and it’s original printing dates back to 1570.  As families passed these chapbooks around for their children, many illiterate adults found them entertaining because of the ease of rhythmic language and illustrations.  However, the background of these nursery rhymes is quite fascinating because many of them were used as ways to reflect, record, and remember certain historical or political events.

Humpty-Dumpty: Despite the illustration of Humpty-Dumpty made famous by Lewis Carroll, the original meaning of this rhyme can be traced to the English Civil War’s Seige of Colchester (1648). According to the historical legend, Humpty Dumpty was the name of a very large cannon, set next to St. Mary’s Cathedral, to protect it from siege.  When the wall below the cannon was struck, the cannon fell, and all of the “Kings Men” (Royalists) couldn’t “put it back together again.”

Juvenile-Mother-Goose-Humpty-Dumpty2 (1)

History of Humpty-Dumpty and more Nursery Rhyme information

Beyond the fascinating historical and political origins of nursery rhymes, the importance of them for developing a young child’s language is still relevant.

“Many of these songs were not originally for children,” says Kay Vandergrift, Professor Emerita of Children’s Literature at Rutgers University. Most of these songs were part of an oral-based society that relayed news, spread coded rumors about authority figures, and worked out its moral dilemmas (for kids and adults) in rhyme and song. And existing nonsense rhymes that were part of this oral tradition could be used or adapted to make references to current events. It was in the nineteenth century, when Victorian society sentimentalized childhood and romanticized “quaint” times from the past, that most nursery rhymes were written down and presented as for children only.


How are these poems—inhabited by kings, queens and peasants of a rural past predating electricity, television and computers—still relevant to twenty-first-century kids and parents? If we are so far removed from the world that hatched these rhymes, why should we still read them? Some of the reasons people sang nursery rhymes to each other in the past remain good reasons to do so today.

PBS: The Surprising Meaning and Benefits of Nursery Rhymes

Nursery Rhymes have endured centuries of storytelling and remain popular with children today.  Tomie dePaola’s Mother Goose is one current version by a favorite children’s author.  Movies, like the infamous Shrek, have included favorite Mother Goose character’s like the Three Blind Mice.

What about your children? Do you read the Mother Goose nursery rhymes? Why do you think they’ve endured the test of literary time?