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The True Meaning of the Nursery Rhyme "Jack and Jill"

Based in the UK, Peter Yexley has been an online writer since 1994. He enjoys researching the true meaning of nursery rhymes.

Detail of a postcard with the words and tune of "Jack and Jill," originally illustrated by Dorothy M. Wheeler in "English Nursery Rhymes" (1916)

Detail of a postcard with the words and tune of "Jack and Jill," originally illustrated by Dorothy M. Wheeler in "English Nursery Rhymes" (1916)

"Jack and Jill" Nursery Rhyme

The original rhyme comprised only four lines:

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.

Later, another verse was added.

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.

That verse was later changed for reasons that you might guess ("nob" is a slang term for male genitalia):

Up Jack got and down he trot
As fast as he could caper;
And went to bed and covered his head
In vinegar and brown paper.

Still later, another two verses were added but rarely used:

When Jill came in how she did grin
To see Jack's paper plaster;
Mother vexed, did whip her next,
For causing Jack's disaster.

Now Jack did laugh and Jill did cry
But her tears did soon abate;
Then Jill did say that they should play
At see-saw across the gate.

Execution of King Louis XVI, copperplate engraving by Georg Heinrich Sieveking, German copperplate engraving, 1793

Execution of King Louis XVI, copperplate engraving by Georg Heinrich Sieveking, German copperplate engraving, 1793

Interpretation 1. The French Revolution

One of the most popular explanations of this nursery rhyme is that it refers to a particularly gruesome episode during the French Revolution. In this interpretation, Jack represents King Louis XVI of France, and Jill represents his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette is probably most famous for having allegedly said about the starving peasants, “Let them eat cake." During this time, the peasants did not have enough money for bread to eat, and cakes were something only the rich could afford. This quote was supposed to demonstrate how out of touch the queen was with the daily struggles of her subjects.

In this interpretation, the nursery rhyme tells the story of the execution of the king and queen in 1793 during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution. "Jack and Jill went up the hill," in which the hill represents the steps to the guillotine. Jack (King Louis XVI) was the first to be beheaded, and "lost his crown," and then Jill (Marie Antoinette's head) "came tumbling after."

Two copper measuring jugs: 1 gill measure (left) and 1/2 gill measure (right).

Two copper measuring jugs: 1 gill measure (left) and 1/2 gill measure (right).

Interpretation 2. King Charles's Tax

An alternative explanation of the nursery rhyme centers around King Charles I of England. Shortly after he rose to the throne in 1625, he attempted to increase taxes on liquid measures to boost his wealth, but Parliament voted against it. Bear in mind that at the time Parliament and the king did not work well together—Oliver Cromwell and all that!

King Charles wasn't about to be undermined by Parliament; he felt himself far too powerful to submit to mere ministers. His next move was to decree that the standard volume of a "jack" (approximately a quarter pint) be reduced but the tax remain the same. In this way, the king gained his tax without actually raising it.

The volume mark on the standard jack measure was indicated with a crown. Thus "Jack fell down" (the volume mark was lowered) "and broke his crown" (the crown mark was lowered accordingly).

What about Jill? Well, it turns out that a "gill," pronounced "jill," was a standardized measure that was twice the volume of a jack. Thus, when the volume of a jack was reduced, the volume of a gill was automatically reduced, as well: "Jill came tumbling after."

An additional interesting tidbit is that at the time, it was widely known that ale was frequently watered down at the inns and taverns. The innkeeper would go and "fetch a pail of water" to do this deceptive deed.

Title page from the first quarto of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," printed in 1600. The phrase "Jack and Jill" appears in Act III.

Title page from the first quarto of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," printed in 1600. The phrase "Jack and Jill" appears in Act III.

Interpretation 3. An Ordinary Jack and Jill

The phrase "Jack and Jill" is sometimes used to refer to a generic man and woman. An exclusive club or society for instance, might not desire "any old Jack and Jill" as part of its membership. A jack-and-jill bathroom is a bathroom shared between two bedrooms, usually meant to be shared by two siblings. And consider the term "jack of all trades," used to refer to a person who is skilled in several different domains.

This phrase is not new by any means—its origins can be traced back at least as far as William Shakespeare. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck says "Jack shall have Jill; Nought shall go ill" (end of act three).

The reference appears again in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost: "Our wooing doth not end like an old play; Jack hath not Jill."

Sources and Further Reading

Comments

emilythestrange1711 on June 22, 2014:

i think it doesn't have a meaning... everyone over thinks EVERYTHING

fano on January 24, 2012:

It has to do with the sun/zodiac....

Peter Yexley (author) from UK on June 18, 2011:

I was thinking about the well on the hill and almost all the medieval churches were built on a hill and had wells.

It's probably more common than we might think.

attemptedhumour from Australia on June 18, 2011:

That's a good answer, silly, but it makes sense too.

Peter Yexley (author) from UK on June 17, 2011:

Thank you, it is bizarre how they do have a twist in their tail (tale)

Helen Murphy Howell from Fife, Scotland on June 17, 2011:

What a fascinating hub. I always find it really interesting how nursery rhymes and fairy stories meant for wee innocent kids have such a gory meaning behind them all. Really enjoyed this hub.

Peter Yexley (author) from UK on June 17, 2011:

I think the hill came from all the soil they dug out whilst digging for the water table .....that's my excuse anyway.

attemptedhumour from Australia on June 17, 2011:

I didn't expect a conspiracy theory about Jack and Jill, with a history lesson thrown in. How many wells are there up a hill though? Food for thought i suppose.