How Did These Classic Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies Originate?

The stories behind the familiar words may surprise you

Close up mother and son reading book
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Most people’s first experience with poetry comes in the form of nursery rhymes—the lullabies, counting games, riddles, and rhymed fables that introduce us to the rhythmic, mnemonic, and allegorical uses of language in poems sung or recited by parents.

We can trace the original authors of only a few of these works. Most of them have been handed down from mother and father to their children for generations ​and were only recorded in print long after their first appearance in the language (the dates below indicate first known publication).

While some of the words and their spellings, and even the length of the lines and stanzas, have changed over the years, the rhymes we know and love today are remarkably similar to the originals.

Here are a few of the best-known English and American nursery rhymes.

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Jack Sprat (1639)

Jack Sprat wasn’t a person but a type—a 16th-century English nickname for men of short stature. That likely accounts for the opening line, “Jack Sprat did eat no fat, and his wife could eat no lean.”

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Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker’s Man (1698)

What first appeared as a line of dialogue in English playwright Thomas D’Urfey’s "The Campaigners" from 1698 is today one of the most popular ways to teach babies to clap, and even learn their own names.

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Baa, Baa, Black Sheep (1744)

Although its meaning has been lost to time, the lyrics and melody have changed little since it was first published. Regardless of whether it was written about the trade of enslaved people or as a protest against wool taxes, it remains a popular way to sing our children to sleep. 

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Hickory, Dickory Dock (1744)

This nursery rhyme likely originated as a counting-out game (like “Eeny Meeny Miny Moe”) inspired by the astronomical clock at Exeter Cathedral. Apparently, the door to the clock room had a hole cut into it so the resident cat could enter and keep the clock free of vermin.

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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary (1744)

This rhyme made its written debut in the first anthology of English nursery rhymes, "Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book" of 1744. In it, Mary is referred to as Mistress Mary, but who she was (the mother of Jesus, Mary Queen of Scots?) and why she was contrary remains a mystery.

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This Little Piggy (1760)

Up until about the mid 20th century, the lines of this fingers and toes game used the words little pigs, rather than little piggies. Regardless, the end game has always been the same: once you get to the pinky toe, the piggy still cries wee wee wee, all the way home.

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Simple Simon (1760)

Like many nursery rhymes, this one tells a story and teaches a lesson. It has come down to us as 14 four-line stanzas illustrating a young man’s series of misadventures, thanks in no small part to his “simple” nature. 

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Hey Diddle Diddle (1765)

The inspiration for Hey Diddle Diddle, like many nursery rhymes, is unclear—although a cat playing a fiddle was a popular image in early medieval illuminated manuscripts. Nursery rhyme authors obviously mined rich veins of storytelling going back hundreds of years.

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Jack and Jill (1765)

Scholars believe that Jack and Jill are not actual names but Old English archetypes of boy and girl. In at least one instance, Jill isn’t a girl at all. In John Newbery’s "Mother Goose's Melodies," the woodcut illustration shows a Jack and a Gill—two boys—making their way up a hill in what has become one of the most popular nonsense verses of all time.

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Little Jack Horner (1765)

This tale of yet another “Jack” first appeared in a chapbook from 1765. However, English dramatist Henry Carey’s "Namby Pamby," published in 1725, mentions a Jackey Horner sitting in a corner with a pie, so this cheeky opportunist no doubt played a part in English literature for decades. 

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Rock-a-bye Baby (1765)

No doubt one of the most popular lullabies of all time, theories about its meaning include political allegory, a swinging (“dandling”) rhyme, and reference to a 17th-century English ritual in which stillborn babies were placed in baskets hung on a tree branch to see if they would come back to life. If the bough broke, the child was considered gone for good.

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Humpty Dumpty (1797)

Who or what this personified egg is meant to represent, historically or allegorically, has long been a topic of debate. Originally thought to be a type of riddle, Humpty Dumpty was first published in Samuel Arnold’s "Juvenile Amusements" in 1797. He was a popular character portrayed by the American actor George Fox (1825–77), and his first appearance as an egg was in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass.” 

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Little Miss Muffet (1805)

Threads of the macabre are woven throughout many nursery rhymes, whether to couch deeper messages in the guise of lighthearted verse or because life was just darker back then. Scholars discount the legend that this one was written by a 17th-century physician about his niece, but whoever did write it has been making children shudder at the thought of creepy crawlies ever since. 

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One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1805)

No obscure political or religious references here, just a straightforward counting rhyme meant to help children learn their numbers. And maybe a little bit of history, as today’s youngsters are likely unfamiliar with shoe buckles and maids in waiting.

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Hush, Little Baby, or the Mockingbird Song (unknown)

Such is the enduring power of this lullaby (thought to have originated in the American South), that it inspired a set of songwriters nearly two hundred years later. Written in 1963 by Inez and Charlie Foxx, “Mockingbird” was covered by many pop luminaries, including Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin, and Carly Simon and James Taylor in a chart-topping duet.  

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Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (1806)

Written as a couplet, this song was first published in 1806 as "The Star" in an anthology of nursery rhymes by Jane Taylor and her sister Ann Taylor. Eventually, it was set to music, that of a popular French nursery rhyme from 1761, which formed the basis for a ​classical work by Mozart as well. 

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Little Bo Peep (1810)

The rhyme is thought to be a reference to a peek-a-boo type children’s game that goes back to the 16th century. The phrase “bo beep,” however, goes back two hundred years earlier than that, and refers to the punishment of being made to stand in the pillory. How and when it came to reference a young shepherdess is unknown.

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Mary Had a Little Lamb (1830)

One of the most popular of the American nursery rhymes, this sweet song, written by Sarah Josepha Hale, was first published as a poem by the Boston firm of Marsh, Capen & Lyon in 1830. Several years later, composer Lowell Mason set it to music.

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This Old Man (1906)

The origins of this 10-stanza counting verse are unknown, although Anne Gilchrist, collector of British folk songs, mentions in her 1937 book, "Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society," that a version was taught to her by her Welsh nurse. British novelist Nicholas Monsarrat recalls in his memoirs hearing it as a child growing up in Liverpool. The version with which we are familiar today was first published in 1906 in "English Folk Songs for Schools."

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The Itsy Bitsy Spider (1910)

Used to teach finger dexterity to toddlers, the song is American in origin and thought to have first been published in the 1910 book “Camp and Camino in Lower California,” a record of its authors' adventures exploring peninsular California.

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Your Citation
Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "How Did These Classic Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies Originate?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. (2020, August 26). How Did These Classic Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies Originate? Retrieved from Snyder, Bob Holman & Margery. "How Did These Classic Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies Originate?" ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).