Monday, October 1, 2012

Rock-a-bye Baby

I've heard people refer to sleeping soundly as "sleeping like a baby."  This has got to be one of the most egregious misuses of a simile in our language today.  Unless they actually mean that they woke up every two hours, messed in their pants and threw up a little on themselves, the simile is inaccurate.

How odd are the sing-song lullabies we use to coax children to sleep?  The "Itsy-bitsy Spider" is particularly scary in my mind as what ungodly arachnid can survive drowning!?!?

Growing up I can remember my Grandmother singing "Rock-a-bye Baby" to me ... but it also could have been an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, so don't quote me on it.

Being a former English major, I figured it was high time to deconstruct the go-to lullaby to each of its lines and analyze what is really going on there.

Figure 1.1
"Rock-a-bye baby..." so far so good.  Baby is partaking in a nonsensical activity which we understand to be taking place in a cradle.

Figure 1.2

" the treetop./"  So, already we're in trouble.  Why anyone would place a child in a cradle in a tree is beyond me, but this is hardly a soothing scenario.  Wikipedia offers up that this may have something to do with a Native-American tradition of rocking babies to sleep in birch bark cradles that were hung from trees.  Even if this is true, it seems a far cry from a safe activity.
Figure 1.2
"When the wind blows, the cradle will rock./"  You ain't just whistling Dixie.    Generally, wind + object intended to move = movement.  So, in short -- while not an overwhelmingly amazing insight, this portion of the verse does prove important for future plot twists.
Figure 1.3
"When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall./" This seems like a rapid escalation in the course of the action.  One might assume a parent would be apt to place his or her child on a rather strong branch of a tree (were one to place a child in a tree in the first place) and so this wind must be rather on the strong side.  According to the Beaufort Scale, we're looking at a wind speed of somewhere between 62-74 mph.  And that's for "twigs and small branches" to be blown off the tree.  Someone is a derelict parent here.  I'm assuming somewhere around 50 mph one would probably remove the child from a tree.

Figure 1.4
"And down will come baby, cradle and all."  Well, at this point things really could hardly get worse.  One assumes that baby lacks the powers of levitation, thus the inevitable force of gravity will presumably pull all three elements-- bough, baby and cradle, downwards.  In fact, unless said tree were positioned directly above an alligator infested pond the situation could hardly get any worse.

This whole scenario is far from relaxing.  I don't care how soothing your voice is -- this is scary as all hell.  Thus, I posit another explanation to the purpose of this so-called nursery rhyme: to instill crippling fear in the child to encourage obedience.  

Hypothesis: babies cry for a variety of reasons, and by scaring them into submission, one may hope to curtail unnecessary crying by the implicit threat conveyed by the lullaby.  

What could be worse than being put in a tree that inevitably will break and cause grievous bodily harm and emotional distress?  I sure as hell would act right if my parents threatened to throw me out of a tree.



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