The House That Jack Built

I can’t remember why I was thinking of the rhyme ‘The House That Jack Built’ but I began to wonder about the origin of the repetitive nursery rhyme and if as with other such rhymes there was a meaning or a true story behind it. In case you don’t know it, it starts with the simple line about the house and builder, and gradually  gathers more details until it comes to the last verse:

This is the horse and the hound and the horn
That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn
That kept the rooster that crowed in the morn
That woke the priest all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

Was there any such person as Jack? Maybe he was a maltster with his own malting house where of course he would cat to huntvermin, and a dog maybe to do the same or to be a guard dog. Maybe he was a farmer and grew barley for the malt, and of course would have had domestic animals such as dairy cows and chickens on his farm. No doubt he would have a had a milkmaid – was she all forlorn? Was the tattered man a casual labourer who came to work at the farm? Was the priest a catholic because he was shaven – or were all clergymen shaven? Was the farmer sowing corn the same man as the maltster? I don’t remember the  horse, hound and horn in the version of the rhyme I knew as a child – but maybe the farmer/maltster had a horse and did go fox-hunting with hounds (one of which may have been the dog which annoyed the cat and had a to-do with the crumple horned cow)

No-one knows where the verse originated; there have been all sorts of suggestions – mainly, it seems, based on old poems of a similar cumulative, repetitive structure rather than verses with the same characters and elements. There is a house in Shropshire which is supposed to be the actual Jack-built house, but there is no evidence whatsoever that Cherrington Manor was built by an owner named Jack or a builder of that name. What is known is the building dates from 1635 for a man named Richard, Sir Richard Leveson who was an MP.; he did have an older brother called John but he had nothing at all to do with Cherrington.

I came across a wordy site where an Italian person, T asked about the origin of the phrase. Here are the answers to his question from A, B, C, D, E and F, and his own thoughts prior to havig the explanation:

T: Hi! I’m not writing to ask you a translation, but the meaning of this phrase, an idiom in your language I guess.
A: What the background of it and is it part of a specific slang of a certain area or any ethnic group?
B: Considering we don’t have any context for your question, you may just want to read the Wikipedia article and see if that helps.
C: If you will give us the sentence in which you saw this, we may be able to explain what the reference means in that particular context.
D: I, too, am familiar with the nursery rhyme from my childhood. As far as I know, the phrase is not a generally used idiom in English. I have, however, seen articles about successful companies established by men use a phrase recalling the rhyme. A piece about the Smith Steel Company, started by Jonathan Smith, for example, might well be called “Smith Steel: The House That Jon Built”.
E: In linguistics quarters, after the arrival of Noam Chomsky and his works, the expression “The house that Jack built” has become a sort of symbol for the recursiveness of the rule for the production of longer and longer relative clauses.
F: I think I’ve heard it used of a building that looks as if it had been put together at random, rather than designed. Like the nursery rhyme itself, which gets longer verse by verse, by adding random associations. E.g. “Did you see that new block of offices in West Street? It looks like the house that Jack built.”
T: Gosh! I had no idea it was a nursery rhyme and no clue it was on Wikipedia where it is already very clear! So, no particular phrase link nor context. Like D tells us, it comes out to me here and there just recalling the rhyme.
Example: pop music. Two titles.

  • “The house that TRANE built: The story of Impulse record” (where Trane is John Coltrane).
  • “The house that JACKIN’ Built: The roots of 80’s Chicago” (no idea who is Jackin’ but the play here is also on “house” as a sub-genre of dance music).

Given the musical context I was under the impression it was an idiom by Afro-American legacy… sorry for making a blunder! I guess the only nursery rhymes I know in English is actually the counting rhyme

Many writers, musicians, film-makers, TV producers use the first line as a title in their music, books, series etc; here are just a few, very few, of teh many examples I found on a single Amazon page (I got as far as looking at page 9 and gave up!)

  • Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built – by Duncan Clark
  • The House That Jack Built: The True Story Behind the Marsden Grotto and the Search for Roman Treasure
  • House That Jack Built – (Books with Holes (Paperback)) by Pam Adams
  • This Is the House That Jack Built – by Simms Taback, and also by Graham Masterton, Jenny Stow, Anne Punton, Elena Gomez and , Diana Mayo

… and on DVD:

  • The House That Jack Built – Starring: Adam Faith, Gillian Taylforth
  • This is the House That Jack Built – Starring: Scotty Huff, Mandy Patinkin

In fact the reason I was thinking of this rhyme, was a comment a friend made!! Read her blog here:



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