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Origins: Jack Be Nimble

Calico Jack

Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Jack jumped over
A candlestick.

A second verse occasionally appears:

Jack jumped high,
Jack jumped low,
Jack jumped over
And burned his toe.

Added to Gamer Gurton’s Garland (1st ed. 1784) by Francis Douce around 1815, Jack Be Nimble is often used for a skipping rhyme. There are three theories of its origins.

Yellow Fever

Yellow Fever, also known as Yellow Jack, was once common in the West. It is an acute viral hemorrhagic disease with symptoms include a fever, nausea and vomiting, back pain and headache. In a minority of cases leads to liver damage and jaundice.

In the time when the treatment of disease and illness was based more on guesswork and superstition than any real scientific knowledge, it was thought that lighting a fire in the room of a person taken ill with the disease in order to draw the fever out. During an outbreak, a lit candle would be placed by the bed of a child in the hope that it would ward off infection.

Here, then, the Jack of the rhyme is the Yellow Fever itself, and the rhyme is an invocation to the fever to ‘jump’ into the fire.

Pirates!

“Calico” Jack Rackham (1620-1720) was a pirate ship captain. Captured while at anchor in Jamaica in 1720 and unable to plead his belly as his crew members Anne Bonny and Mary Reed did, Rackham was tarred, gibbeted and hanged in a cage, his body displayed as a warning to others. This theory supposes the rhyme to be a celebration of Calico Jack’s many near misses before he was finally caught.

Fortune telling

The most likely explanation of the rhyme is the tradition of candle jumping as a (fairly vague) way of divining the future.

Practiced at fairs in England since the 1600s, candle-jumping appears to be derived from more ancient bonfire jumping rituals. It was particularly popular in Buckinghamshire, where lace-makers would end their St Catherine’s Day festivities by lifiting their skirts and leaping a candle. No doubt doubly popular because is allowed spectators a glimpse of the girls’ dainty ankles, it was thought that jumping over a lit candle without extinguishing the flame would bring good luck. Jack Be Nimble describes this practice, but it’s still not clear who, exactly, Jack is!

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