The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective SpecGram Vol CLXXIV, No 3 Contents Top Tips For Linguists—Part I—The SpecGram Editorial Board

The Native American Origins of Jack and Jill

Mary Hadlitt-Lamb
Grimm Institute of Folkloristics

Jack and Jill” is usually described as a traditional English nursery rhyme. Few scholars have considered the possibility that its origins may lie further afield. However, compare the first verse

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.

with the following Mohawk word

“That fool came tumbling down the hill.”

A casual analysis would attribute this to coincidence. After all, the English rhyme never refers to its protagonists as fools. However, consider that a well would naturally be placed as close to the water table as possible, therefore at the foot of the hill. Only a fool would go up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

We must also remember that it was part of a fool’s traditional role to introduce levity into tense situations. However, if his attempts to do so were deemed inappropriate, he would risk punishment. Consider the third verse—

Then Jill came in and she did grin
To see Jack’s paper plaster.
Her mother whipped her across her knee
For laughing at Jack’s disaster.

It is clear then, that the Mohawk word is part of a larger narrative from which “Jack and Jill” is ultimately derived. More research is needed to establish when this cultural exchange took place, but we know its influence has continued into recent times. During the 1960s, cultural influences from America, brought by maritime trade, were important in the development of the Liverpool music scene. Consider the following lines by Lennon and McCartney.

The fool on the hill sees the sun going down,
And the eyes in his head see the world spinning round.

This is clearly what he would see as he came tumbling down the hill.

The SpecGram Linguistic Advice Collective
Top Tips For LinguistsPart IThe SpecGram Editorial Board
SpecGram Vol CLXXIV, No 3 Contents