There is absolutely no evidence for what I am about to explain. I repeat: as far I know, this is NOT true and you need to know that from the beginning. I hope you’ll want it to be true, that you’ll be amazed by both its simplicity and its logic, and feel that I must have overlooked something somewhere. The other possibility is that you will react just like my undergraduate students when I forced them to read something about linguistics: They complained bitterly that it all was ridiculously esoteric and had no application to “real life”. My standard answer for that is reality is highly overrated.
Here’s the theory:
Ring around the rosie;
A pocket full of posies;
We all fall down.
Everyone seems to “know” that this little rhyme is about the plague. The rosie is the plague rash; the posies are to keep away bad smells which carry germs; ashes is either a corruption of “a-tishoo” – meaning a plague-symptom sneeze, or else a description of what happened to the victims as they were burned; and “we all fall down” is shorthand for “we all fall down dead.”
Even before I came up with my own theory, this explanation has always seemed forced. For one thing, it appears to imply the plague rash is circular in shape, which it’s not. For another, if one were going to sniff flowers (posies) to ward off germs, one wouldn’t keep them in a pocket, and for a third, victims of the plague did not exhibit sneezing as part of their symptoms, nor were they burned. In fact, this plague interpretation has been debunked many times by professional folklorists, but it refuses to die because “everyone just knows it’s true.” An example of “truthiness” before it was fashionable.
One day when I was musing on various unrelated ideas, as linguists are prone to do, it struck me that if one were to make two very small changes in the rhyme, it would perfectly describe the history of the rosary. How about:
Ring around the rosary
A pocket full of posies
We all fall down.
Let’s start with the first line and the first change: Ring around the rosary. In English “the” always marks a noun. Perhaps there might be an intervening adjective or two, but somewhere following close on “the”, you will always find a noun. Now “rosie/rosy” is not a noun, nor has it ever been one. Most of the time “rosy” is an adjective, meaning pinkish; although, sometimes, it can be a verb, as in “She rosied when she saw him.”
“Rosary,” on the other hand, does not only make sense grammatically; it also makes perfect sense phonologically. When children (and who are the ones who say this rhyme?) are confronted with a three syllable word that has an unaccented middle syllable, they often drop the middle part. Think about how a small child might say “elephant” or “telephone.” This process could easily turn “rosary” into “rosie.”
One more bit of evidence for “rosary” is in the meaning of the word itself. A rosary is circular or ring-shaped.
For the rest of the rhyme to make sense, it’s helpful to know a little about the history of the rosary. In the middle ages prayers were often compared to flowers. Prayer books were sometimes called “little gardens”, while a “rosary” was a rose garden. What if a pocket full of posies, an old-fashioned word for flowers, was really a pocket full of prayers? After all, most people do keep their rosaries in their pockets.
The next change I’m proposing is “ashes” to “ave”. It’s not all that far fetched. The syllable shape stays the same and phonologically “sh” and “v” belong to the same class of sounds. “sh” is just pronounced a little farther back in the mouth. If we couple “Ave” with “We all fall down,” we have a very accurate description of early rosary practices. Before the Hail Mary found its modern form, people used to salute Mary using only the words from the angel “Ave Maria, Gratia Plena”, prostrating themselves as they did so. They would make 50 or 100 or 150 of these salutations, using their rosaries to keep track of the number of times they “fell down.”
It all sounds lovely, and I was quite enamored with this theory, and sure I had solved one of history’s not-quite-burning mysteries until I did some research. The earliest written version of “Ring Around the Rosie” is only from about 1880, although there is some anecdotal evidence that a similar rhyme may have existed in the late 1700s. If it were really a description of a medieval rosary practice, I would think there would be some trace of it even earlier.
So – while I would certainly never advocate for teaching my theory as the correct one – I did say right upfront that I know there’s no evidence for it – wouldn’t it be great if it achieved the same urban legend status as the plague interpretation theory? People would actually learn something about the Rosary, and may even begin to pray it occasionally. On the other hand, if that did happen, there is no doubt in my mind that the rhyme would then be banned in all the kindergartens across the country as condoning the mixing of church and state, or making the non-Catholics feel excluded or inferior or something, and then we would suddenly have a whole new class of five year old criminals on our hands. The law of unintended consequences.