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Wednesday, March 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Author finds steamy side to nursery rhymes

By Sue Leeman
The Associated Press

An illustration for the nursery rhyme "Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick" appears in Chris Roberts' book "Heavy Words Thrown Lightly."
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LONDON — They seem innocent enough, but Jack and Jill may have become amorous as they climbed that hill for a pail of water.

And instead of a water bird, "Goosey, goosey gander" may refer to a woman of ill repute, says Chris Roberts, a social-history graduate and librarian at the University of East London. Roberts has re-examined the origins of 24 popular nursery rhymes for a new book, "Heavy Words Thrown Lightly."

"The rhymes have all been well researched, but I have looked at them from a more modern, psychoanalytical perspective," he said.

Roberts said his book, published by Foot and Mouth Publications, is intended to be "a lighthearted take" on the rhyming stories and nonsense jingles enjoyed by youngsters for years.

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For more information, seeFoot and Mouth Publications,
Linked to events

It has long been known that many nursery rhymes allude to contemporary events — some of them distressing, even bloody. Peter and Iona Opie's "Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes," published in 1998, is among works that address origins and interpretations.

However, a study of published psychoanalytical texts has taken Roberts further than others in finding sexual meanings.

"Jack 'losing his crown' can be read to mean losing his virginity," said Roberts, who hit on his idea while researching historic walks in east London.

Roberts believes that the rhyme "Goosey, goosey gander, where do you wander? Upstairs and downstairs and in my lady's chamber" is an allusion to prostitutes — commonly known as geese in the 18th century. The rhyme also hints at the spread of venereal disease, which was known as "goose bumps" because of the swellings it caused.

Meanwhile, he says, "Oranges and Lemons," widely seen as a guide to the City of London, is a vulgar wedding song in which the line "here comes a candle to light you to bed" refers to the bride tempting her bridegroom; "here comes a chopper to chop off your head" suggests the woman losing her virginity, or "maidenhead."

The Opies do not allude to such readings. Yet they record the alternate second verse of "Jack and Jill" and agree with Roberts that the reference to "cockles" in "Mary, Mary Quite Contrary," refers to cuckolds in what Roberts believes is the promiscuous court of Mary, Queen of Scots, who ruled in the mid-1500s.

Like Roberts, the "Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes" authors record an alternate version of "See Saw, Marjorie Daw" that refers to Marjorie as a "filthy slut" who decided to "sell her bed and lay on muck."

"Some nursery rhymes were clearly adult rhymes that were sung to children because they were the only rhymes an adult knew," Roberts said. "Others were deliberately created as a simple way to tell children a story or give them information. Religion, sex, money and social issues are all common themes."

Far-ranging backgrounds

After a lifetime of studying old texts, the Opies concluded that most nursery rhymes are fragments of ballads or folk songs, ancient customs and rituals, street cries or mummers' plays. Others are based on proverbs or refrains of tunes sung by soldiers, they said.

They agree with Roberts that the rhymes "were not in the first place composed for children; in fact many are survivals of an adult code of joviality, and in their original wording were, by present standards, strikingly unsuitable for those of tender years."


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