For those curious, American Songwriter just finished conducting our survey of every living person on Earth and the results came back just as we suspected: everyone on the planet both knows and has recited the nursery rhyme, “Jack and Jill.”
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(Just kidding, of course.)
But despite the lack of a true survey like that, it can be pretty safely assumed that most people are familiar with the rhyme. But who among us knows the meaning of the long-sung work? That’s a different story.
And one we will tell right here, right now.
With such a ubiquitous and old rhyme as “Jack and Jill,” it’s likely the case that the words have multiple meanings. Simultaneously, those meanings, because the song is so old, may be hard to trace back to their origins.
Nevertheless, let’s dive in.
“Jack and Jill” is a traditional English-language nursery rhyme that dates back to the 1700s. To date, there are over a dozen verses known, which include Jack and Jill falling, Jack getting run over by a goat, Jack and Jill’s mother getting run over by a cow, and several other fates. These verses were added to the work some 50 years after the first-known record of the rhyme.
Originally, “Jack and Jill” was known as “Jack and Gill,” which could either be a reference to two boys, or it could be a lesser-known spelling of “Jill,” with a soft-G. Though illustrations with the original verse did include an illustration of two boys. That leads some to think that “Gill” was changed to “Jill” because of the easier alliteration and to diversify the genders in the story.
The earliest known version of the rhyme was in a reprinting of John Newbery’s Mother Goose’s Melody, which is believed to have been published in London around 1765.
The First Printing
The original first printing of the rhyme included only the first verse:
Jack and Gill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Gill came tumbling after.
Later, more verses were added. These are the most common ones known today, though, as stated above, there are upwards of about 15 in total published in 1806 in Jack & Jill and Old Dame Gill. Here, “Old Dame Gill” is the children’s mother, who “whips” Jill for laughing at her brother.
Up Jack got and home did trot,
As fast as he could caper;
Went to bed to mend his head
With vinegar and brown paper.
Jill came in and she did grin
To see his paper plaster;
Mother, vex’d, did whip her next
For causing Jack’s disaster.
There are also several more recent American and British renditions of the verses, which include shooting a bow and arrow at a cat by mistake and Jack and Jill looking for goblets of milk, or Jack and Jill not realizing there’s a hole in their bucket. But we won’t spend time explicating those renditions here, as they don’t really pertain to the meaning of the original rhyme.
Just for fun, though, here is one example from the children’s album Fun and Frolic (London and New York, 1900):
Jack and Jill
Went up the hill
To fetch a pail of milk, oh!
Jack was drest
In his Sunday best,
And Jill in her gown of silk, oh!
But What Does It All Mean?
Firstly, the names Jack and Jill have long been generic references to a boy and girl. Thus, they are commonly used in nursery rhymes, like “Jack and the Giant Beanstalk.” And “Jack and Jill” is also a phrase used in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though the reference is unrelated to the nursery rhyme at hand.
In the above extra verses, after Jack falls, he uses a compress of vinegar and brown paper, which was a common home remedy at the time for head bruises.
But why did Jack and Jill head up the hill? And what was a well doing atop a hill? What are the meanings of these details?
Wells are most often, if not entirely, situated in lower areas so one doesn’t have to dig to get to the subterranean water. So, then, the well at the top of the hill is likely a metaphor.
Perhaps, it’s like the story of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun on wings made of feathers and wax by his father Daedalus. Perhaps Jack and Jill are like Daedalus and Icarus, falling. Maybe the rhyme is an allegory for not going up, not working to travel higher, and instead being comfortable with your status as-is?
Or, perhaps the rhyme is a reference to nobility at the time, a failed marriage, a failed aim at finding satiation for a family or community. A broken crown. Other theories include taxation on beer—with half-pints known then as Jacks and quarter-pints are known as Gills, which were each taxed by the government. The well is, then, a pub.
Other offerings include possible references to events in the village of Kilmersdon where a local girl became pregnant. But the father died from a fall and the woman died afterward in childbirth (thus, she came tumbling after).
Or perhaps it’s simply a cautionary tale for siblings to look after each other. Go, yes, explore, but be careful, watch your step, and take care of each other.
But the most likely explanation for the rhyme’s meaning is death. (It’s always death with these things!) In other words: what goes up must come down. As you’re achieving your life’s goal—getting fresh water—just know that the mountain you climbed has a downside. Youth has old age. Life has death. Up has down. Be prepared to lose your crown.
One strange origin story for the rhyme comes from author S. Baring-Gould, who suggested that it related to a story in the 13th century Icelandic Gylfaginning. There, a brother and sister, Hjuki and Bil (sounds a little like Jack and Jill), are abducted by the moon while drawing water from a well.
In the end, as with most nursery rhymes that are centuries old, there are likely several, if not many, applications to the words for various events in history. A boy and a girl going to get something could be the basis of any number of tales. Their failure and subsequent efforts to try again, too.
Perhaps the real meaning is in the repetition of the rhyme, in sharing stories word-of-mouth. And to remind people, young and old, of all genders, what can happen if you aren’t worried about your next step. Thinking, then, of dangerous consequences keeps you on your toes and your water pail full.
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