Chapter 15 of A SHARE IN DEATH(mystery story)begins this way,
Suffolk to Sussex to Wiltshire to Oxfordshire, ring around the roses. It made Gemma dizzy to think of the past two days. And tired. (Gemma: Gemma James, a female sergeant, in London.)

What does the phrase "ring around the roses" mean? No clues in the context. You would say it is a nursery rhyme or folksong and playground singing game….….. But for lack of knowledge, I don’t understand the phrase in this context.
I’ve also come across it in the following passage. I wonder the first phrase is the same as the second one in meaning. Please give me your advice.

Dcfs has been studying us because we can’t get it together. I’m wacked out of my brain. I can see my day coming when I’m out of my situation. I can see my day coming when I’m out and I’m actually moving around. I can go on and on but by now it’s starting to make sense. It’s like Ring around the roses, people have been getting over and over and right now I’m just getting by. I need to make a change. (Taken from Hairology)
DCFS=Department of Children & Family Services

  • A little more context would help. Urban Dictionary tells a story of the Black Plague in Europe.
    – NVZ
    May 28, 2016 at 9:23

5 Answers 5


It is used to mean "a run around": a journey that takes you from place to place trying to get to your destination. I don't think there is anything in the nursery rhyme that suggests this, but at some point a writer picked up the phrase as an image for going round and round and not getting anywhere, and in that meaning it has become a cliche.

  • 1
    The nursery rhyme is likely one of songs that accompanied the children's game in which the participants join hands in a circle and whirl around until everyone collapses out of breath. It is very unlikely that it has anything to do with the Black Death.
    – deadrat
    May 28, 2016 at 10:04
  • Other phrases for this predicament - "going all (a)round the houses", "all (a)round the Wrekin" (Shrophise & Welsh Borders - the Wrekin is a prominent hill in Shropshire)
    – Angst
    Oct 2, 2016 at 19:28

The passage seems to embody the notion of being given the run-around, with literary allusions to A Ring a Ring o' Roses a nursery rhyme first appearing in print in 1881.

Urban legends say the rhyme goes back to the great plague of London, and that the "ring of roses" refers to the early symptom of rings of red spots on the faces of bubonic-plague sufferers. Folklorists reject the idea that the nursery rhyme is connected with the Plague.

The usual words are:

Ring-a-ring o' roses, A pocket full of posies, A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down.

  • This is true, but doesn't answer the question: the OP has already mentioned the nursery rhyme.
    – Colin Fine
    May 28, 2016 at 9:54
  • @ColinFine I have updated the answer so that it more directly addresses the question.
    – WS2
    May 28, 2016 at 14:16

Without reading the story, it is difficult to say exactly. However, it is very possible that it relates to the fact that the route the character takes is a clockwise ring around London, which is known for its rose gardens.

Coupled with the understanding that the story is in someway connected with death, I would say the author has playfully used the nursery rhyme to help establish that connection.

Obviously, this is my interpretation, but I hope it helps to shed some light on the topic.


Since what I took to be common knowledge apparently isn't, I'm going to expand my comment into an answer.

Ring-around-the-roses is, as mentioned in the OP, a nursery rhyme. It is also a common children's game, at least in the US.

The exact words vary, as is true of all playground rhymes, but this is the version with which I'm most familiar.

Begin with all players holding hands and facing each other (in a ring). Say the rhyme as you do the movements.

Ring around the rosie(s) (everyone circles while holding hands, perhaps seeing arms gently)
A pocket full of posies (continue circling);
Ashes, ashes (optional: on this line, swing your arms up and down in time to the rhyme);
We all — fall — down! (everyone "falls" to the floor).

Toddlers love this game. It loses its charm for adults after the first three (dozen) repetitions, and for children sometime around age 6—nothing happens! there's no point! you just keep going in circles!—thus the negative connotations of the figurative use.

I note that according to her Amazon author biography, the author of the first quote, at least, is an American (though she lives in the UK) with at least one child; I would expect most American mother's to have a passing familiarity with this game, along with peek-a-boo and the itsy bitsy/eensy weensy spider.

I haven't found any information about the Hairology author other than that she appears to be female, but it seems likely that someone who writes about Child Protective Services might have regular contact with small children.

YouTube has many examples of this song and game, both as animations intended to entertain young children, like this one, and also as video of actual children playing the game, as here, here, and here.


This was always said to be a nursery rhyme when I was a child in England, (1940s). Has nobody mentioned that? The explanation was that it commemorates victims of the plague spread from London in 1665 to the Derbyshire village of Eyam (still there!). The 'ring of roses' was a rash around the base of the neck. The posies were bunches of flowers to quash the smell. Then came sneezing ('atishoo, atishoo') and in the end the all the victims would fall down dead. Eyam folks quarantined themselves to stop the spread to other communities. (The rhyme used to be acted out (well into my lifetime) by children in a circle, holding hands, chanting the words and ending up on the ground - hence the 'run around'? The plague in London was probably halted the following year, by the Great Fire of London. And in the 1970s, the GFL was recognised by the London Fire Brigade's non-emergency telephone number: it ended '1666'...

  • Welcome to EL&U! This site strives to provide objective and well-referenced answers to questions. The general consensus is that the plague was not caused by the Great Fire of London (citation) For more, take the tour and see How to Answer. Oct 2, 2016 at 17:06
  • Other way round, BladorthinTheGrey! The fire (1666) probably put paid to vestiges of the plague (!665).
    – David
    Oct 3, 2016 at 9:29
  • sorry what I meant was that the plague was not stopped by the Great Fire - as they were about 300 years apart - although I do accept that the Fire might have stopped a smaller, later outbreak in London. Oct 3, 2016 at 15:51

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