Many of us would have heard the small four-line nursery rhyme “Jack Be Nimble”. It is a fairly simple rhyme and can be memorized in about five minutes at the most. Many children love to jump around repeating this rhyme. Here is the rhyme:
Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick,
Jack jump over
The candle stick.
Though many of us would have repeated this rhyme a thousand times when we were young, most of us do not know the background to this rhyme. As with most traditional nursery rhymes, this rhyme too seems to have had a background completely unconnected to the context in which the rhyme is used today. This particular rhyme has no less than three theories as to its origin.
The first theory states that the rhyme is a reference to the dreaded yellow fever. Yellow fever, sometimes known as “yellow Jack” was once very prevalent in the west. It was common belief during the olden days before medical advancement that lighting a fire in the room of the person suffering from yellow fever would draw the fever out. Thus, many times, if there was an epidemic of yellow fever, mothers of children would light candles in the child’s room in order to ward off the fever. According to this theory, “Jack” was the yellow fever itself. The rhyme was supposedly a plea to the fever to jump over the fire and pass without harming the child. This theory seems very far-fetched as a background for the light and rhythmic rhyme.
The second theory states that the “Jack” in the rhyme is a reference to “Black Jack” the English pirate of the 16th century who avoided arrest a great many times. The rhyme is a tribute to his expertise at successfully avoiding the authorities. This theory too does not seem entirely connected to the rhyme though it may well be.
The third and most accepted theory about the background of the rhyme is that the rhyme deals with the activity of “candlestick jumping” that was practiced in early England. During those times, candlestick jumping was a sport engaged in by Englishmen during fairs and festivals, especially during the St. Catherine’s day celebrations. According to legend, the man who jumped over a lighted candlestick without putting out the flame earned a year’s worth of good luck.
Although the third theory is the lightest and happiest of the three explanations for the origin of the rhyme, and the one that most people would like to readily accept as the reason for it, this theory does leave us in doubt as to who exactly “Jack” is. It is possible that “Jack” is simply a reference, in general, to the person who is jumping over the candlestick. Who knew nursery rhymes had so much meaning in them!