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.