Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres

 

21. Children’s rhymes and folklore

 

Andy Arleo

 

Rude rhymes and folklore

 

The field of children’s folklore has also been affected by changing attitudes in society regarding taboo language and topics. As Australian researcher June Factor points out, ‘the existence of vulgar and obscene children’s folklore is now recognised as a universal phenomenon’ (Factor 1988: 160). However, in the past such material was expurgated in nearly all English-language collections of children’s folklore. In his study of counting-out rhymes, the nineteenth-century American folklorist Henry Carrington Bolton wrote that ‘in all our oral and written communications with children in every walk of life we have not received a single vulgar rhyme, nor one containing foul language. The nearest approach to an oath is the exclamation of “Gracious Peter”’ (Bolton 1888/1969: 25). Recent collections and studies of children’s folklore attempt to present a more realistic picture of playground language and no longer bowdlerise obscene or ‘gross’ material (for example, Factor 1988; Bronner 1988). A major study of obscene French children’s folklore shows that rhymes referring to excrement, farting and sex have existed for centuries (Gaignebet 1980). It should, however, be remembered that obscene items do not necessarily carry the same meanings for children as for adults; explicit sexual allusions, for example, are often only partially understood and the degree of comprehension varies from child to child. The same applies to sexist and racist material that can be found on the playground.