nursery rhymes


nursery rhymes
   Traditional rhymes which are passed on to children while they are still of nursery age. The key point here is that the transmission is normally from adult to child, which can be distinguished from *children's lore, which is mainly transmitted between children. Most adults have a basic repertoire of nursery rhymes at their disposal - there can be few adults in England who cannot recite *Baa Baa Black Sheep, *Little Jack Horner, or Jack and Jill - but many buy books of rhymes when they become parents, which have the added advantage of illustrations, from which they read to their children. The rhymes themselves provide a fascinating array of imagery, rhythm, and simple structure, which have pleased generations of children and adults, and, despite their apparent inconsequential-ity, far outstrip any other verse form in terms of distribution and popularity, and their place in the national consciousness is proved by the frequency with which advertisers and parodists use them.
   A surprising number of nursery rhyme collections, usually in the form of *chapbooks, were published from the mid-18th century onwards, with titles such as Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book (c.1744), The Top Book of All, for Little Masters and Mistresses (c.1760), and Gammer Gurton's Garland (1784); but no scholar thought the rhymes worth their notice until James Orchard *Halliwell published his two collections of The Nursery Rhymes of England (1842) and Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales of England (1849), on which virtually all subsequent collections relied for material, until the researches of Iona and Peter *Opie's seminal work, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (1951; 2nd edn., 1997).
   Nursery rhymes have suffered the indignity of having more nonsense written about them than any other folklore genre. Commentators have sought to explain nursery rhymes in terms of political satire, ancient mythology, Freudian psychology, fertility ritual, sun-worship, and any other intellectual fad of the time, and the game of spotting hidden meanings is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. The truth is that few of the rhymes can shown to be older than the 18th century, many of them have identifiable authors, and are easily understood as nonsense rhymes for children or the flotsam and jetsam of adult songs, poems, customs, plays, and so on. This is not to underestimate the problems of evidence of this field, and the possibility that many rhymes could be much older than their first known printings, but inventing origins from stray internal clues is hardly likely to produce real knowledge.
   The normal term for nursery rhymes in the USA is *Mother Goose Rhymes.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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