What Is the Real Meaning Behind 'Ring Around the Rosie'?

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 
ring around the rosie
These children, in the Black Belt area of Chicago in 1941, are playing "Ring around the Rosie," a nursery rhyme that has many versions and meanings. Library of Congress

Key Takeaways

  • "Ring Around the Rosie" is a nursery rhyme historically connected not to the Black Death, but to playful dance practices in the 19th-century America and England during a time when dancing was socially discouraged.
  • The rhyme was part of "play parties" where children would sing and move in circles, simulating courtship and crushes, often featuring a child in the middle as a "rosie" or rosebush, symbolizing love.
  • The version most known today was popularized over a hundred years ago and published in Kate Greenaway's "Mother Goose and the Old Nursery Rhymes."

We've all had pandemic and plague on our minds since early 2020. And that brings us to the old nursery rhyme we sang as kids, "Ring Around the Rosie." Surely you remember the words:

Ring around the rosies Pocket full of posies Ashes, ashes, We all fall down!

Usually it's sung by younger children while they stand in a circle holding hands, and then true to their word, they all fall down to the ground. (Thanks, kids, for acting out the literal meaning behind that.)



Is "Ring Around the Rosie" Really About the Plague?

Anyway, some of you might have been told this innocent nursery rhyme was about the Black Death that swept England in the 14th century. The rosies were the red marks of the bubonic plague, while the posies were the flowers plague doctors used to lessen the stench of death all around. The ashes were supposed to represent the cremated bodies of those who died from the great plague, and the falling down meant, well, falling down dead.

The Library of Congress notes that the first mention of "Ring Around the Rosie" and the plague comes in the middle of the 20th century, 700 years after the bubonic plague. The origins of the song seem to be in Germany in the late 18th century, with other versions also found in Switzerland and Italy.


"Ring Around the Rosie" doesn't arrive on British shores until the 1880s, as far as historians can tell. And England's last brush with the bubonic plague was in the middle ages in 1665, more than 200 years prior.

What about those ashes, though? They seem pretty deadly. Other versions of the song have different sounds in that third line, like a-tisha or husher, neither of which has anything to do with cremating bodies.

Plus there's the fact that cremating the dead was absolutely forbidden in 14th century England. Even those who died of bubonic plague were buried in accordance with church law.

So it turns out this is just the plague theory, and according to folklorists, there are a few theories on what this nursery rhyme is about. Another one is love.

ring around the rosie black plague
People praying for relief from death, circa 1350. Was "Ring Around the Rosie" really about the black plague?
Hulton Archive/Getty Images


"Ring Around the Rosie" and Love

So if the Black Death interpretation is out, how do we get from there to love? The answer is dance fever.

A Protestant dancing ban swept America and England in the 19th century, kind of like a very early "Footloose" situation. But like the kids in that 1980s movie, the kids of a century before would not be tamed.


They instead fashioned "play parties," where all the children would sing little rhymes in a circle while they moved around. Definitely not dancing, and really for sure not square dancing. It's a circle, Mother.

The songs, including "Ring Around the Rosie," were about courtship and crushes. In this particular case, someone stood in the middle of the ring as the rosie, or rosebush, which symbolized love. Other versions — including the Swiss, Dutch and Italian — also mention a rosebush.

While the teenagers defied the dancing bans, their younger siblings would imitate them. So as the fad for play parties fell out of fashion, little kids kept up the tradition of singing songs in circles. Some modern nursery games grew out of these play parties, especially those that involve rings, including "Little Sally Saucer" and "Ring Around the Rosie."

The version of "Ring Around the Rosie" most people are familiar with was first published in Kate Greenaway's "Mother Goose and the Old Nursery Rhymes," and that's the version kids have stuck with for more than 100 years. And the one now probably stuck in your head.


Frequently Asked Questions

How did "play parties" influence American folk music?
Play parties helped cultivate a unique form of American folk music, integrating simple, catchy rhymes and movements into traditional tunes.
Are there other nursery rhymes that originated from "play parties"?
Yes, several nursery rhymes like "Little Sally Saucer" also developed from these social gatherings, embedding themselves in cultural traditions.