Jack and Jill, the beanstalk, the candlestick. What is the meaning behind "Jack" in every fairy tale?

Since Jack went up the hill with Jill, Jack jumped over the candlestick, and climbed the beanstalk (to name just a few of his exploits,) he must be wiped out. Think about the classic fairy tales, folktales, and children’s stories. Doesn’t it seem like a disproportionate number of them contain a hero named Jack? Is this just a coincidence?

In fact, many of these stories come from a collection of English folk tales about a character named Jack. These stories are called the Jack tales.

The name Jack has a complex origin. While it is used as a diminutive of Jacob, it also derives from the Old English Jan (“John”) and the Germanic Jankin (“kin of John.”)  The “Jan” names exist independently of the French Jacques. All of these paths combine to make Jack such a common name that English speakers once used it to refer any male (not necessarily in a complimentary manner.) Jack remains one of the most popular first names in the English speaking world.

Essentially, “Jack” in tales serves as kind of shorthand for “guy.” “The Dude” from “The Big Lebowski” could probably relate to Jack.

(Another prominent Jack is the Jack O’ Lantern. Learn the identity of this Jack, as well as the creepy story behind the custom, here.)

The two most well known of the Jack tales are probably “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack the Giant Killer.”

In “Jack and the Beanstalk,” Jack sells his poor mother’s cow for a handful of magical beans. This infuriates her, and she tosses the beans into the garden. They grow into a thick stalk that climbs into the sky. Jack proceeds to climb the stalk, find the land of a giant, and steal from him. The giant pursues Jack. But the boy is able to scurry down the stalk fast enough to chop it down and send the giant to his death.

Then there’s “Jack, the Giant Killer,” which tells the story of a brave and clever farmer’s son who kills several giants with names like Cormoran and Blunderbore.

The Jack tales were first put into print in the 18th century.

The tales eventually made their way from England to the Appalachian region in the United States where they were adopted to fit the culture and became part of a rich oral tradition. While the setting may have changed, the stories remain remarkably the same, candlesticks, beanstalks and all.

On the topic of names in strange places, who is the Joe in the coffee phrase “cup O’ Joe?” We tackle that one, here.