Behind the Pious Detective Story of the Nursery Rhyme “Goosey Goosey Gander”

Throughout history, nursery rhymes have held several meanings. Two, though, are at the forefront. In one sense, the nursery rhyme is meant to entertain and keep the imaginations of children. In another, they are supposed to teach—or, put more harshly, to instill a message.

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The 18th-century nursery rhyme “Goosey Goosey Gander” is no different. It is both interesting to the ear and delivers a rather scathing message to its audience. Here below, we will dive into the meaning, history and usage of the rhyme.

The Meaning of the Rhyme

Today, the most common form of the rhyme reads as follows,

Goosey goosey gander,
Whither shall I wander?
Upstairs and downstairs
And in my lady’s chamber.
There I met an old man
Who wouldn’t say his prayers,
So I took him by his left leg
And threw him down the stairs.

On the face of it, the rhyme is almost a cartoonish fever dream. But when you get toward the end of the work, you can see what’s happening.

In the rhyme, someone is looking around. Where shall they go (wither shall I wander)? They enter a home and go upstairs and downstairs. They walk in a woman’s chamber. And what do they find? An old man who wouldn’t say his prayers. In the 18th century as religion was both flourishing and perhaps coming under scrutiny with the advent of business and industry, this was a no-no. One must say their prayers both to be connected to God and to show those around you that you are God-fearing.

So, what is the old man’s penalty for refusing to say his prayers? Well, he is taken by his left leg (the left leg is the off, or not right leg) and he is flung down the stairs. He is hurt by this action, physically and morally, of course, and one can assume he is taken out of the house. He loses his home and is thrust into the world, likely mocked. The moral? Say your prayers.

Priests and Prostitutes

Some believe the old man is a priest who is not doing his job. But that, specifically, doesn’t really matter. Whether the old man is a priest, a beggar, or something in between—what matters in the rhyme is that he’s not connected to God. And, therefore, not connected to a God-fearing citizenry.

Others have interpreted the goose reference in the beginning of the rhyme to mean prostitutes. A goose at one time was slang for a prostitute. But it could also just mean a woman, or an explorative person. Geese are known to just wander around, poking their long necks and heads into random places. The “g” of the goose also makes for nice alliteration and a nice pun with “gander.”

Final Thoughts

Often, when we learn concepts as young children, the point is to use them to stay connected to the pack. Humans are social animals and as much as reading and writing are important, so is the act of not being extricated by the community. That is the intention of this rhyme. Stay connected to the people around you and you won’t be flung from your home.

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Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

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