Ring a ring o'roses, a pocketful of posies, atishoo, atishoo, all fall down
Verse from a nursery rhyme.
There are many versions of this rhyme, some of which use entirely different words to the roses/rosy variants. The most commonly seen first lines are 'ring a ring of (or o') roses (or rosy)' and 'ring around a rosy'. The most common variant of the third line, especially in the USA, is 'ashes, ashes'. The many versions aren't surprising as, being lines from a playground rhyme, they would have first been spoken, sung or chanted rather than recorded in a book.
It is often suggested that the rhyme relates to the symptoms of plague, specifically the Black Death - the bubonic plague that spread through Europe in the 1340s, or to the Great Plague of London, 1665/6. The plausible-sounding theory has it that the 'ring' was the ring of sores around the mouths of plague victims, who subsequently sneezed and fell down dead.
Those with more knowledge of etymology will shake their heads sagely and explain that the plague theory is a well-known falsehood. The idea is usually dismissed for these reasons:
1. The first appearance of the rhyme in print is in Kate Greenaway's Mother Goose, which wasn't published until 1881, suggesting that the rhyme originated far too late for the Great Plague to have been the origin:
A pocket full of posies;
Hush! hush! hush! hush!
We're all tumbled down.
2. The 'atishoo, atishoo, all fall down' lyric isn't present in many of the the numerous versions and neither soreness about the mouth nor sneezing tally with the actual symptoms of people suffering from bubonic plague.
3. The noted folklorists of childhood Iona and Peter Opie have reported that the plague theory didn't appear until the 1950s. If the theory were true then we would expect to see it in circulation much sooner than that.
Despite the strong evidence against it, some of the refutations of the plague theory are rather too emphatic in their rejection of this idea. Let's look at those items of evidence in turn:
Firstly, the 1881 date that is part of the refutations is a little misleading; it is the first known printing of the complete rhyme, but the game and the 'ring a ring of rosies' line were known well before that. The game and the rhyme were known in the USA, and quite probably elsewhere, by 1855, when it was included in The Old Homestead, a novel by Ann S. Stephens. This depicts children playing 'Ring, ring a rosy' in New York.
William Wells Newell, the author of Games and Songs of American Children, 1884, wrote that Ring a Ring a Rosie, with the familiar tune, was in use by children in Bedford, Massachusetts, circa 1790. The version he recorded was:
Ring a ring a rosie
A bottle full of posie,
All the girls in our town,
Ring for little Josie
Newell was a respected folklorist but, unfortunately, he didn't supply documentary evidence for his assertion.
The argument that the lyric couldn't have lasted in common playground parlance without being recorded in print from the days of the Black Death in the 1340s until 1881 has some weight. The Black Death wasn't the only occurrence of plague in England - the population also suffered Great Plague of 1665. That 'ring a ring o'roses' lay unrecorded between 1665 and 1790 doesn't seem entirely impossible - many phrases have lain dormant for longer than that. children's rhymes would have been of little interest to authors in the 17th century and printing was then still an expensive process. There's no evidence to suggest that these lines originated as anything other than a children's rhyme and would inevitably have been known to children for some time before appearing in print. How long a time is open to conjecture, but 125 years - well, why not?
Secondly, both coughing, sneezing and bright red sputum are symptoms of pneumonic plague, which has just as good a claim to be the rhyme's origin as does bubonic plague.
Thirdly, the Opies only claim that they haven't found evidence of the plague theory from before the 1950s; they don't know when it actually originated.
So, the items of evidence against the plague origin of the rhyme are open to doubt. However, showing that something is possible doesn't make it true. It is a common urge to try to ascribe meaning to ambiguous lyrics and poems - for example, 'Pop goes the weasel'.
An alternative and more probable explanation, and one which is almost always the case with nursery rhymes, is that the words are playful nonsense.
The plague derivation is indeed unlikely but, in their haste to denounce an apparent fallacy, several websites have begged the question by swallowing the assertion that 'the first time the phrase appears in print is 1881' as fact. As a French wine producer once said after tasting a poor imported wine which was labelled 'Appellation d’origine contrôlée'; "the paper never refuses the ink" - that goes double for digital paper.