Caryn Gootkin delves into the murky waters of seemingly innocent nursery rhymes.
My nephew, who turns six this week, has begun playing “find the homonym”. Of course he doesn’t call it the homonym game; to him it is the game of finding words that sound the same but have different meanings.
My five-year-old son loves the game and we played it on a recent car trip. To my surprise he came up with “pale”. He explained it as both “a light kind of colour” and “a bucket”. Intrigued, I asked him how he knew that a pail was a bucket. “From Jack and Jill, mom”, he answered, rather annoyed at having to explain this obvious connection.
This interaction got me thinking about nursery rhymes and their role in early childhood development. Intrigued by his osmotic absorption of the lesser used synonym, I had a choice: do some serious research into the educational benefits of nursery rhymes or have a superficial look at the dark side of these ditties. Fortunately for you I chose the latter.
Although there are different versions of Jack and Jill, the following appears in authoritatively titled The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, penned by the rather serious Mr P and Mrs I Opie. (I imagine growing up in their house must have been like being locked in a scholastic torture chamber.)
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.
A pleasant, if somewhat implausible, poem? I think not.
Rhymes.org.uk explains that most sources attribute the origins of the rhyme to King Louis XVI (Jack) who was beheaded (lost his crown). His Queen, Marie Antoinette, is Jill, who was beheaded after him. These beheadings happened during the Reign of Terror in France in 1793.
Now this is a serious matter. I am a firm believer in teaching children from a young age the truth about the birds and the bees and the correct terms for their own stings and wings. I also don’t believe in sheltering them from the harsh realities of life. However, even I draw the line at explaining to them the brutal historic context of Jack and Jill.
The rhyme’s diction and flippant treatment of serious topics are also somewhat troubling to me. Apart from the somewhat archaic references to “pail” and “crown”, which our kids learn as “bucket” and “head”, there are some medical issues here that can’t be overlooked.
While we are singing and clapping, let’s spare a thought for poor Jack who fell down a hill (which I am sure must be an unpleasant experience in itself), breaking his crown. Remember that this doesn’t refer to the bling the Good Queen Bess wears on her head – if that were to break I have no doubt Lloyd’s of London would have a part to play. In this context, however, crown refers to the top of the poor boy’s head; that part which is more visible on Prince William’s head than on that of your average twenty-eight-year old.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if my child were to crack open the top of his head, this would be a cause for serious concern. I would not take him to “old Dame Dob (to patch) his nob with vinegar and brown paper”. Oh no, this would definitely be a case for major recoupment of the last twenty years’ medical scheme contributions.
And whilst “pail” is a bland, if somewhat archaic, term, the same cannot be said for “nob”. According to traditional dictionaries, at best it’s slang for head, at worst a derogatory term for someone of the upper classes. In fact, Vikas Shah’s entry on urbandictionary.com defines it as
A derogatory term for an individual or slang for a penis. Can also be used as a verb as slang for sexual intercourse.
1. That guy is such a nob!
2. Did you here, Bob nobbed that girl last night?
So, those of you who support keeping old nursery rhymes alive for the sake of nostalgia, can we at least agree that the Opies’ second verse of Jack and Jill should be dropped? If not, we run the risk of the Vikas Shahs of this world accusing old Dame Dob of paedophilia. And even I think that would be unfair.
 YAHOO! ANSWERS provides an alternative version involving two boys, named Jack and Gill, who represent the influential sixteenth-century cardinal Thomas Wolsey and his close colleague, Bishop Tarbes. I thought about following this path, but decided it would best for left for a future column on the origins of the Church’s attitude to homosexuality.