In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nursery Rhymes

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • History of Publication and Criticism
  • Historical Contexts
  • Role in Childhood Culture
  • North American Rhymes
  • International Rhymes

Childhood Studies Nursery Rhymes
Elizabeth Galway
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0124


Nursery rhymes, also known as Mother Goose rhymes, can be broadly defined as short songs and verses often read or sung to, or by, young children. Generally, these verses are anonymous, although the term nursery rhyme has also been applied to works written by known authors. Many familiar nursery rhymes are centuries old and originated as part of a long oral tradition. Others first appeared as written works, although the authorship of these works is not always known. Nursery rhyme publication coincided with the rise of children’s literature more generally, with significant publication beginning in the 18th century and blossoming in the 19th century. Nursery rhymes vary in style, subject, tone, and theme, although many are marked by a use of rhythm and rhyme that makes them easy to remember. They include nonsense rhymes, lullabies, finger-plays, counting-out rhymes, riddles, games, songs, and ballads, among other types. While some rhymes seem designed purely to amuse, others are didactic and educational, including those intended to help children learn the alphabet and numbers. Many nursery rhymes have variants in other languages, with similar rhymes appearing in different nations. Many of the best-known traditional nursery rhymes were not originally intended for the young but belonged to a folklore tradition shared by adults and children. In England, the first significant written work containing traditional rhymes was Tommy Thumb’s Song Book (London: Cooper, 1744). Another significant 18th-century publication, intended specifically for children, was Mother Goose Melody (London: Newberry, c. 1765). The term Mother Goose rhymes is interchangeable with nursery rhymes, and its use in English dates back to the early 18th century, when Charles Perrault’s collection of fairy tales was first translated from the French. The subtitle of his text, Contes de ma mere l’Oye was translated into English as “Tales of Mother Goose.” Over the years, there has been speculation as to whether Mother Goose was a historical figure, with some scholars positing that she was either an author or a teller of tales for children, but it is generally accepted that the term does not refer to any particular person. Nursery rhymes remain a ubiquitous part of children’s literature, often accompanied by illustrations designed to appeal to early readers. They also continue to be passed from one generation to the next as part of a shared oral culture.

General Overviews

Despite the continued popularity of nursery rhymes and the proliferation of collections available for today’s consumers, there remains relatively little academic study of the genre. Vocca 2003 provides a brief overview of the genre and summarizes some of the scholarly approaches that have been taken to the study of this type of children’s verse. Some of the earliest scholarship appeared in early-19th-century collections of rhymes, such as Halliwell-Phillipps 1968 and Halliwell-Phillipps 1886, which include notes offering possible interpretations of the rhymes and information about their origins. Some of these claims have been challenged by later scholars, with Goldthwaite 1996 pointing to some anachronisms evident in Halliwell-Phillipps’s theories about the history and meaning of certain rhymes. Delamar 1987 outlines some of the different approaches to studying nursery rhymes that have been taken over the years, and the text’s bibliographies and index render this work a good starting point for research. Linguistic elements are examined in Schellenberger 1996, and rhymes are considered within the broader context of children’s poetry as a whole. Russell 2009 considers child readers themselves more directly, providing a general overview of nursery rhymes from the perspective of an educator and considering how they may affect children. The most significant effort to provide a rigorous, scholarly analysis of nursery rhymes remains the work done by Iona and Peter Opie, first published in the mid-20th century. Opie and Opie 1997 addresses some of the inaccuracies in the work of early scholars, and contributes significantly to our understanding of the oral tradition, the early publication history of the rhymes, the vast range of verses available, and possible ways of interpreting and analyzing this genre of children’s literature.

  • Delamar, Gloria T. Mother Goose: From Nursery to Literature. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1987.

    Good introduction to the study of nursery rhymes that begins with a clear historical overview. Engages with other scholarship and outlines various approaches to analyzing nursery rhymes. Its chronological bibliography of important Mother Goose books, annotated bibliography of secondary sources, and clear index make this book a useful tool for those beginning research at any level.

  • Goldthwaite, John. “The World Three Inches Tall: Descent of the Nursery Rhyme.” In The Natural History of Make-Believe: A Guide to the Principal Works of Britain, Europe, and America. By John Goldthwaite, 13–44. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    Provides a straightforward historical overview of nursery rhyme publication, illustration, and scholarship. Outlines early-18th-century publication history, including Puritan influences. Includes helpful discussion of early criticism and reception of nursery rhyme collections, including a critique of James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps’s 19th-century theories about the origins of different rhymes.

  • Halliwell-Phillipps, James Orchard. The Nursery Rhymes of England. 5th ed. London: Frederick Warne, 1886.

    First published in 1842, this book is an extensive collection of traditional rhymes divided into eighteen categories. Some rhymes have brief annotations about their origin and meaning, although later scholars have questioned the accuracy of these. Illustrated by W. B. Scott. This edition has been digitized and is available online through sites such as Project Gutenberg and Also see Origins, Historical Interpretations, and Hidden Meanings.

  • Halliwell-Phillipps, James Orchard. Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales: A Sequel to the Nursery Rhymes of England. Detroit: Singing Tree, 1968.

    Anthology of assorted rhyme and tales gathered from a largely rural, oral tradition. Includes substantial commentary on the meanings and origins of the rhymes. One of the earliest examples of nursery rhyme scholarship, this influenced much subsequent work on the topic, though scholars such as Goldthwaite have critiqued anachronisms evident in Halliwell-Phillipps’s interpretations. Originally published in 1849 (London: Smith), this book is available online through Project Gutenberg and Also see Origins, Historical Interpretations, and Hidden Meanings.

  • Opie, Iona, and Peter Opie. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.

    Originally published in 1951, this foundational work in the field of nursery rhyme scholarship remains one of the most comprehensive reference tools available. Introduction provides an overview of different types of rhymes, their origins in the oral tradition, and the history of their appearance in literature in Great Britain and the United States. Includes several hundred rhymes arranged alphabetically and comprehensive notes on sources, variations, and possible meanings. Also see Anthologies and Origins, Historical Interpretations, and Hidden Meanings.

  • Russell, David L. Literature for Children: A Short Introduction. 6th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2009.

    Basic introduction to different periods and genres of children’s literature. Chapter 6, “First Books” (pp. 111–133) will be helpful to new education students as it touches briefly on frightening and violent elements of nursery rhymes; their role in cognitive, aesthetic, social, and physical development; and nursery rhyme illustration.

  • Schellenberger, Kirsti. “From Mother Goose to the Modern World: Contextualizing the Development of Children’s Poetry.” MA thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1996.

    Explores rhymes as responses to communal experiences, examines their unifying features, and outlines some of their psychological and social functions. Includes linguistic analyses of select rhymes and a consideration of how children’s poetry is defined according to changing social contexts.

  • Vocca, Donarita. “Mother Goose.” In The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Edited by Bernice E. Cullinan and Diane G. Person, 560–562. New York: Continuum, 2003.

    A concise overview of the history of Mother Goose rhymes from their roots in the oral tradition to the 20th century. Includes a summary of the different critical approaches to the study of nursery rhymes and an outline of some of the earliest published collections of rhymes.

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