Appalachia Rhymes

Jack Sprat

Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean.
And so betwixt the two of them,
They licked the platter clean.


I always liked this rhyme. What’s not to like-Jack and his wife got along perfectly and life was good because they didn’t waste anything-a truly happy marriage right? Well at least that’s how I thought of it in my head.

According to the book Heavy Words Lightly Thrown by Chris Roberts there is a little more to the rhyme than matrimonial harmony.

The poem can be traced all the way back to the 1600s. Charles I of England, along with his wife, petitioned Parliament for funds to go to war with Spain. The funding was denied and this left Charles in a pickle if you will.

Since Charles was basically out of money-he had no fat. And his wife’s fancy tastes earned her the moniker of not being able to abide anything ‘lean’ or less than her high (fat) standards.

Charles disbanded Parliament and imposed a tax on the people to pay for the war. In other words he and his wife licked the folks of England clean in an effort to maintain their lifestyle.

Ok-that all makes sense but who was Jack Sprat? Roberts says the term Jack Sprat was used to describe someone of small stature-someone who was short.

So I suppose Jack Sprat was code for: the king who acts like a very small man instead of the large man he should be.

Kings, queens, wars, taxes, and slurs-and here I thought the rhyme was about peace and love.


*Source: Roberts, Chris. Heavy words lightly thrown: the reason behind the rhyme. New York: Gotham Books, 20062005. Print.

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  • Reply
    February 11, 2014 at 10:29 pm

    I never knew that interpretation; however, I find it rather interesting. I am really enjoying the valentine stories.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    February 11, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    Tuther day I told you about rabbit starvation. That’s is a condition wherein an individual eats only meat that is so low in fat that it actually poisons their system. Reckon that’s what happened to Mr. & Mrs. Sprat? That must be why Jack was so little? His growth was stunted! Shame on you Mrs. Sprat! You know a man ain’t fed ’til he is wiping the grease off his face with the back of his hand. Shamey!
    You don’t happen to know what Mrs. Sprat’s given or maiden name was, do you? I think she might be related to the distaff side of my family.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    February 11, 2014 at 2:35 pm

    A diller by the Yorkshire definition was a dimwit, stupid lazy problably, student…that dilly-dallied around…LOL…I am guilty of that…ha This rhyme pertains to the importance of being on time….
    A rhyme used by children of the day to chastize a student who was always late to school.

  • Reply
    Mary Lou McKillip
    February 11, 2014 at 1:30 pm

    Tipper, these rhymes/stories are mightier than the sword with readers who enjoy all your posts so very much. what if others years back not penned these treasures.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    February 11, 2014 at 1:22 pm

    These posts and comments are the very
    reason I like the Blind Pig and the
    Acorn. It’s nice to take in the views
    of the different parts of our country.
    Now I’m gonna fix me some fried bologny
    and gravy with biscuits…Ken

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    February 11, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    Love it! To borrow from another rhyme I love how you “dig and delve”.

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    February 11, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Here we are eating “fat and lean” with Jack Spratt (King Charles 1) and his wife, (Henrietta Maria), however a little fat makes the lean a bit more tasty! LOL
    My books second verse:
    Jack ate all the lean,
    Joan ate all the fat.
    The bone they picked it clean,
    Then gave it to the cat
    Jack Sprat was wheeling,
    His wife by the ditch.
    The barrow turned over,
    And in she did pitch.
    Says Jack, “She’ll be drowned!”
    But Joan did replly,
    “I don’t think I shall,
    For the ditch is quite dry.”
    First published in Mother Goose’s Melody in 1765
    Here’s the glitch…this is also attoned to another…John, the younger brother of King Richard the Lionheart, married Joan the ambitious greedy daughter-heiress of the Earl of Gloucester” Joan ate all the fat”….So this is a condundrum of sorts…two accounts of Jack Spratt according to my book..
    In other words, for me, as I was told in my school years one time by a very sweet teacher. I was late to class!
    A diller, a dollar
    A ten’ o’clock scholar.
    What makes you come so soon?
    You used to come at 10 o’clock
    Now you come at noon!
    I found out later that a diller was not a very nice thing!
    Thanks Tipper,
    Love these posts…

  • Reply
    February 11, 2014 at 9:28 am

    Today’s post and responses exemplify what I enjoy about this blog – a wide variety of interesting posts including everything from researched curiosities, to personal introspection, to shared delights, to comments on life’s common experiences – all followed by the wisdom, research, and honest & intelligent comments of your readers.
    By the way – as a child, I had the same take as you on this rhyme(and other rhymes). (Guess that’s why they were such effective political commentary in the day.)
    Folklore and storytelling always fascinated me so I took some courses on the subject in college. My goodness, what an eye-opening experience. My history background was weak – I think I learned more world history from my folklore classes than I did in high school!!

  • Reply
    Jackie Jentzsch
    February 11, 2014 at 9:01 am

    When I was a senior in high school we didn’t have exit projects we had research papers. I picked Mother Goose to do mine on. What a history lesson I got !!!! They did not have “freedom of the press” there and didn’t want to lose their heads so nursery rhymes were the way they could protest. My favorite one was Little Jack Horner. What a story there. Wish I had the internet back then. It would have saved me weeks at the library. LOL

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    February 11, 2014 at 8:27 am

    Tipper–As a recovering university history professor, I can’t resist adding a bit of additional information to your excursion into the reign of King Charles I (ruled 1625-1649). His imperiousness and unwillingness to deal with Parliament led to revolution, and in 1649 he was beheaded. What followed for the next eleven years (known as the Interregnum) wasn’t pretty, but it played no small role in dramatic changes leading towards democracy.
    Also keep in mind this was the same time period when folks were fleeing the British Isles in search of more religious freedom. Many came to America.
    There are analogies, lots of them, between the situation in 17th century England and in our country today, although the “fat” of today leans more towards support of an idle populace than war.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    Patty Howe
    February 11, 2014 at 8:08 am

    I am so glad I found your blog. You have the trivia that I love(and the music,too). Thanks.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    February 11, 2014 at 7:23 am

    That’s quite a story Tipper, Like you I’ve heard that rhyme all my life and never had a clue to it’s meaning. I do recall that the pictures in the rhyme book I had all had an early English look to them. I guess now I know why.
    Now about Jack Sprat, the little man. Was Jack who was nimble enough to jump over the candle stick the same little man? In our current terms I’ve heard ” I don’t give Jack S—” Is that Jack the small?
    Tip, I think your are going to have to see what you can find about Jack!

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    February 11, 2014 at 7:16 am

    I know this one it seem forever. Isn’t it interesting how so many of our children’s games came from hard times. Ring around the Rosy for one.
    It makes you wonder.

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