Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Ashes! Ashes!

Culture is vast, complex, layered, and ultimately impossible to sum up in categories—much as is the starry sky on a clear night in the country. Science derives from the precise, the particular, but the laws it builds are vanishingly thin. This comes to mind in certain contexts, most recently, in my case, thinking about vox populi.

Things run together. Ashes were on my mind as well, well mixed with dust, this month. That led to a memory linked to some work I’d done years ago now for one of our titles. In that context I ran across a children’s rhyme sometimes linked to the Great Plague and a later companion that links to the 1918 Influenza Epidemic. Let’s look at the first of these:

Ring-a-round a rosie,
A pocket full of posies,
Ashes! Ashes!
We all fall down.

That’s the American version. A British version has A-tishoo! A-tishoo! for those ashes, suggesting sneezing. Other slightly different versions exist as well, thanks to the scholars. And let’s transit to them now. Before World War II none of our learned associated this verse with the Great Plague, afterwards the notion arose. To quote the couple Peter and Iona Opie, who first noted this explanation in 1951 (quoted in Wikipedia, link):

The invariable sneezing and falling down in modern English versions have given would-be origin finders the opportunity to say that the rhyme dates back to the Great Plague. A rosy rash, they allege, was a symptom of the plague, and posies of herbs were carried as protection and to ward off the smell of the disease. Sneezing or coughing was a final fatal symptom, and “all fall down” was exactly what happened.

This version of events is challenged by other scholar saying that the symptoms do not match very well. Indeed the colors associated with the plague were black and blue; among the symptoms swollen glands dominate and one finds no mention of sneezing. Gangrene on fingers and toes, on lips and on the nose—yes. Seizures—yes. By contrast, among the top four symptoms of influenza are coughing and runny, stuffy nose. Fever is tops and sore throat third. Too bad that those Ashes! Ashes!—or the double-sneeze—predate the year 1918 when influenza came.

Now an early German version of this rhyme, or simply a sound-alike, is this one, with my translation:

Ring-a-ring in rows
Wir sind der Kinder dreien,
Of children three with bows
Sitzen unter’m Hollerbusch
We sit under an elder bush
Und machen alle Huschhuschhusch!
And make together hush-hush-hush.

I cite this by way of showing that the form of such a ditty keeps persisting, but its content is subject to change. That is the way the vox populi works. It is poetic, free, and entirely untrammeled by careful observation of endless details—but it captures the most important. That is why culture gets it right in myths and science in detail. More power to both.

Now the real verse the 1918 Influenza left us is a little gem illustrating how the culture can take an alien word, like influenza, and make it something memorably part of the current language. And the details are right as well. One of the ways by which the influenza virus is transmitted is by means of airborne aerosols. A hard sneeze can send those babies flying. And they maybe even enter by the window:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza.
I opened the window
And in flew Enza.

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