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The meaning and origin of the expression: Jack in the box

Jack in the box

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Jack in the box'?

A toy consisting of a box containing a figure with a spring, which leaps up when the lid is raised.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Jack in the box'?

Jack in the boxOn the face of it, a Jack-in-the-box is a harmless and amusing children's toy. 'Jack' is usually a clown figure, which pops up on a coiled spring when the box lid is opened. The clowning purists amongst you will probably by now be muttering that they aren't clowns but augustes. You would be right of course. Clowns have white-face make-up and usually wear pointed hats and ruffled collars. Augustes are the red-nosed guys with oversized trousers and squirty flowers in their buttonholes.

Jack was clearly intended to be a comic figure but not everyone finds him amusing. Fear of clowns has become a widespread enough condition lately for someone to have invented a name for it - coulrophobia. The word has no real etymological pedigree and was coined in the past twenty or so years.

The expression 'Jack in the box' existed for centuries before anyone thought of putting spring-loaded puppets inside boxes. The first reference that is known in print is found in John Foxe's Actes & Monuments, 1563, in which he reported a comment made by Bishop Nicholas Ridley:

[There are] railyng bils against the Lords supper, terming it Iack of the boxe, the sacrament of the halter, round Robin, with like unsemely termes.

It is clear that the term was used to represent something unsavoury and insulting. Very soon afterwards there is another reference that shows the phrase to have a meaning close to those who peddled 'a pig in a poke'. 'Jack in the box' was the name given to a swindler who cheated tradesmen by substituting empty boxes for the full ones that were expected. Such a 'Jack' is found in James Cranstoun's reprinting of Satirical Poems of the time of the Reformation. An anonymous poem, titled The Bird in the Cage, was first published in 1570:

Jak in the bokis, for all thy mokis a vengeance mot the fall!
Thy subteltie and palzardrie our fredome bringis in thrall.
[Cheat, for all of your mockery revenge must be taken! Your cunning and devious behaviour threatens our freedom.]

Jack in the boxThere is a theory that the expression derives from the story of Sir John Schorne, a celebrated 12th century pious Christian who was believed by the people of Norfolk to possess healing powers. He was said to have caught the Devil and held him captive in his boot. Several English church screens still contain images of Schorne with the Devil peeping out of a boot. This was (much later) said to be the origin of the name of the toy Jack-in-the-box'. With no real evidence that connects Schorne to the expression, and 700 years later we aren't likely to find any, coupled with the fact that the children's toy didn't emerge until the 18th century, we can reasonably discount that supposed origin and hand Sir John back to the good people of Norfolk.

'Jack in the box' was also the name given to a type of firework and this is found in John Babington's Pyrotechnia, 1635:

Another, [firework] which I call Iack in a box.

The 18th century inventors of the children's pop-up toy needed a name for it. It was a figure in a box that jumped up and gave people a fright. What better than to do what others in various fields had already done and adopt the existing 'Jack-in-the-box' expression?

'Jack in the box' was first used as the name of the toy in the 1702 text Infernal Wanderer:

Up started every one in his seat, like a Jack in a box...

So, Jack-in-the-box was variously a religious insult, a swindler, the Devil and an incendiary device - clearly a character not to be meddled with. Even non-coulrophobic children might do well to be wary of Jack. He may not have been real but, as a bogeyman, he had some impressive credentials.

See also: 'Jack' phrases.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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