The origins of a classic children’s rhyme – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Jack and Jill went up the hill’: we all know these words that call back our early childhoods so vividly, yet where did they come from and what does this rhyme mean? It can be dangerous to try to probe or analyse the meaning of nursery rhymes too deeply – much like analysing the nonsense verse of Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll, we are likely to come upon a hermeneutic dead-end. But ‘Jack and Jill’ is so well-known that a closer look at its meaning and origins seems justified.
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water;
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.
Up Jack got, and home did trot,
As fast as he could caper,
To old Dame Dob, who patched his nob
With vinegar and brown paper.
Is this the complete rhyme of ‘Jack and Jill’? That depends on when you read it, or where. The first stanza is by far the oldest, and seems to have been the sum total of the ‘Jack and Jill’ rhyme in the eighteenth century, when it’s first recorded. The second stanza appeared in the early nineteenth century when the vogue for chapbooks – short illustrated books containing extended versions of popular nursery rhymes – arose. (The chapbook for ‘Old Mother Hubbard’, for instance, was a huge bestseller in the first few decades of the nineteenth century.)
The word ‘crown’, by the way, almost certainly refers to Jack’s head (or the very top of it), rather than suggesting royal connotations (e.g. Jack is a prince or portraying a monarch of some sort). Jack and Jill are just an ordinary boy and girl (or young man and young woman, potentially).
If you read one of these old chapbook versions, you encounter a ‘Jack and Jill’ rhyme that is a whopping fifteen stanzas long:
Then JILL came in,
And she did grin,
To see JACK’S paper plaster,
Her mother put her,
A fools cap on,
For laughing at Jack’s disaster.
This made JILL pout,
And she ran out,
And JACK did quickly follow,
They rode dog Ball,
Jill got a fall,
How Jack did laugh and hollow.
The DAME came out,
To know all about,
Jill said Jack made her tumble
,Says Jack I’ll tell,
You how she fell,
Then judge if she need grumble.
And so it goes on for another ten now-thoroughly-forgotten stanzas.
Thankfully for our purposes here, the most familiar version for modern readers is the two-stanza rendering quoted above. (Many readers will be familiar with an alternative version of that penultimate line, which reads ‘He went to bed to mend his head / With vinegar and brown paper.’ Don’t worry, we’ll come to ‘nob’ in due course.)
But although it was first written down in the eighteenth century, the original rhyme of Jack and Jill may be of a considerably older vintage. Iona and Peter Opie, in their endlessly informative and illuminating The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford Dictionary of Nusery Rhymes), suggest that the rhyming of ‘water’ with ‘after’ is a probable indication of the poem’s seventeenth-century origins, since it was common for ‘water’ (wahter) and ‘after’ (ahter) to sound remarkably and surprisingly similar in the 1600s, just as Shakespeare’s endless rhyming of ‘love’ with ‘move’ may not have been mere eye-rhyme but an indication that he, and his contemporaries, pronounced ‘move’ as muhve.
Jack and Jill as the generic names for a boy and girl (or man and woman) can be traced back to Shakespeare, of course, when Puck asserts in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘Jack shall have Jill; / Nought shall go ill’. But does the nursery rhyme’s tale of a water-fetching trip gone awry (have you had an accident at work that wasn’t your fault?) hide any particular meaning?
It’s worth mentioning the long-standing tradition of boys and girls rolling down Greenwich Hill on Whit Monday. The fact that a boy and a girl are involved in this hillside adventure does certainly suggest a romantic theme or subtext to the rhyme.
Theories about its origins
It’s almost inevitable that once a nursery rhyme attains a certain measure of fame, some exciting but far-fetched origin story will become attached to it, which endeavours to explain the rhyme’s origins in some historical figure or event, or in some myth or legend. And ‘Jack and Jill’ is no different.
The main culprit in the case of ‘Jack and Jill’ was Sabine Baring-Gould, who, when he wasn’t writing the words to the hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ or forgetting what his own children looked like, was putting about exotic but unlikely stories concerning the origins of the ‘Jack and Jill’ nursery rhyme. In his Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1866), Baring-Gould asserted that the rhyme ‘refers to the Eddaic Hjuki and Bil’.
In the Edda or Scandinavian myth that contains Hjuki and Bil, they are two children captured by Mani, the moon, while they were drawing water. The idea is that when we have a full moon, as the Opies summarise the myth, Hjuki and Bil can be seen with the bucket on a pole between them. But the tenuous similarity between the names, and the water-drawing connection, are appealing but not entirely conclusive. Mind you, sillier theories about classic nursery rhymes have been proposed.
In 2004, Chris Roberts, a librarian at the University of East London, suggested that ‘Jack and Jill’ is a story about two young people who lose their virginity together, with Jill conceiving a child (perhaps) and Jack running away from his new paternal responsibility. In Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind the Rhyme, Roberts draws attention to the surprising presence of the word ‘nob’ in the second stanza of the nursery rhyme, or at least the version cited by the Opies (and the one we’ve reproduced above).
‘Nob’ has meant ‘head’ since the seventeenth century (a ‘nob-thatcher’ was a wigmaker, although it sounds like some sort of euphemism or slur), but as a slang word it’s more often applied to another part of the male anatomy. Why it should need patching by Dame Dob with vinegar and brown paper afterwards isn’t clear, and this interpretation is, again, interesting but not necessarily persuasive.
But then what is ‘Jack and Jill’ about? Sadly, we will probably never know for sure – assuming, that is, that the rhyme ever had an actual ‘meaning’. Many nursery rhymes originated as counting or dancing songs to be sung while children played a game together. But the fact that the nursery rhyme has attracted these two very different interpretations says something about our desire to understand and interpret these timeless children’s rhymes. But as for an ultimate meaning? That remains as elusive as ever.
About nursery rhymes
For most of us, nursery rhymes are the first poems we ever encounter in life. They can teach us about rhythm, and about constructing a story in verse, and, occasionally, they impart important moral lessons to us. Sometimes, though, they make no sense at all, and should be enjoyed purely as ‘nonsense’, as a forerunner to the Victorian nonsense verse so expertly practised by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.
Some nursery rhymes appear to have emerged as simple rhymes to accompany counting or dancing games played by children. Sometimes, very specific historical subtexts for famous nursery rhymes have been proposed (many of them relating to the English Reformation of the sixteenth century, when King Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and established the Church of England).
Many of these origin-myths turn out to be just that: myths, or retrospective attempts to find a deeper ‘meaning’ to rhymes which are, after all, children’s songs to be sung or chanted during play. For instance, the idea that the rhyme ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ was written about the bubonic plague has been thoroughly debunked, as has the notion that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ was originally about a cannon in the English Civil War.
Discover the stories behind more classic nursery rhymes with our analysis of ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’, our commentary on the Little Bo Peep rhyme, and our post delving into the history of the ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ nursery rhyme.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Jack and Jill by William Wallace Denslow, via Wikimedia Commons.