V and Wiz, What I am going to attempt to do is to make some sense out of the large quantity of ‘Jack the Bear/bear’ information above, along with the stuff I have dug up. The problem, as I see it, is that we have two ‘Jack the Bears’ with two distinct and opposing personalities. It’s Jack the swift (mentally and physically), sharp and on-the-ball (as is good old Brer Rabbit), versus Jack the unswift (mentally and physically), slow-movin’ and slow-thinkin’ (as is our old friend Brer Bear) and lazy to boot (at least according to one joker in the Urban Dictionary – not one of my favorite sources). And, in the various explanations I have seen, these two seem to have often been hopelessly and carelessly jumbled together. However, it appears to me, that the two bears are distinct and have separate origins, although they both ultimately derived from Africa roots.
Firstly, there is ‘Jack the Bear’ the powerful, the quick, the aggressive, the efficient, the bear at the top of his game. In auto racing, for example, “Jack the bear” is slang for a top-performing driver. In both snowmobiling and boating a powerful machine is said to ‘go like Jack the bear.’ And again in auto racing when someone says his car is running like ‘Jack the Bear,’ it’s moving at optimum efficiency. And this meaning has also spilled over to everyday life where a person or anything that is moving/happening at a fast rate or at top efficiency is said to be ‘going like Jack the Bear.”
<2004 “Zarqawi is trying to make this into Tet. He is using up assets in this fight like Jack the bear.”—‘Rantburg,’ 25 June>
<2004 ”And so he bought a bicycle. Glorious, “shiny, green, fantastic, he rode it home, fast like Jack the bear.”–‘And So He Bought a Bicycle’ by Remillard,’ CBC Radio, 14 November>
In Black-American folklore, which harks back to folk stories and the Voodoo/Hoodoo from Africa, one form of ‘Jack the bear’ has the mysterious and magical powers to visit an area and set things right for those in distress. And this is the fellow who has given us Jack the bold, the swift, and the powerful. In Zora Neal Hurston's (1891-1960) folklore writings, she forms a connection between John and Jack where John is a plant root with mystical powers called ‘John the Conqueror’ used in hoodoo/voodoo practice in the Americas. And there are many American folk/blues songs that refer to hoodoo/voodoo and John (a.k.a. Jack) including a Muddy Waters piece in which he specifically refers to John the Conqueror, or Conqueroom, in this context.
So who was John the Conqueror and why is this root (of the wild morning glory vine, native to Mexico, Louisiana, and Florida) named after him and how is this connected to Jack the Bear? Folklorists, especially those influenced by Zora Neale Hurston, say that he was a black slave whose life – perhaps a real life that was embellished in the telling, perhaps a fictional life entirely imagined – was an inspiration to slaves who wanted to rebel against their masters but could not do so openly. John, who was said to be the son of an African king, was in captivity, but he never became subservient, and his cleverness at tricking his master produced a large supply of stories with a pointed moral. If he was a real being, he soon acquired some of the characteristics of mythical ‘trickster’ figures like the Native American Coyote, the African-American Brer Rabbit, and the West African deity known variously as Elegus, Legbam and Eshu. He gave – only to take away. He bet – and never lost. He played dumb – but he was never outsmarted. The reputation of John (who it is believed to have became ‘Jack’ of ‘Jack the Bear’) was so great that, as recorded by the folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt in the 1930s, just reciting the words "John over John" and "John the Conqueror" was a powerful spell of magical protection against being ‘hoodooed.’ So both the root and the man it was allegedly named after were said to have magical properties. And, as mentioned above (by Wiz), the Black-American slang expression LIKE JACK THE BEAR JUST AIN’T NOWHERE is an expression of disappointment, worthlessness, because the magic of John/Jack just isn’t around.
Secondly, however, there is that other Jack the Bear, that large, strong but sleepy, not-too-bright dullard who we find epitomized in the Uncle Remus story (1881) of Joel Chandler Harris (1848-1908), as the dull foil to the snappy and sharp ‘trickster’ Brer Rabbit. Many of us remember the dopey Disney characterization of Brer Bear (a.k.a. Jack the bear) who sets a tar baby out in the road to trap Brer Rabbit and then, when he has him caught, gets fooled by the rabbit’s entreaties not to be thrown into the briar patch. The dull bear falls for the trick and Brer Rabbit escapes. This ‘Jack the Bear’ comes out of the ‘trickster tales’ (which are common to many cultures) that the African slaves brought to the new world. These ‘trickster’ stories are a universal creation among oppressed peoples—that a small, weak, but ingenious force (such as Brer Rabbit) can overcome a larger, stronger, but dull-witted power (such as Brer Bear). Brer Rabbit continually outsmarts his bigger animal associates including Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, and Brer Bear. And in the’ Treasury of Southern Folklore’ (1941) by Bodkin, the Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear connection is made in these lines from an old Black folk song: “Jack the rabbit, Jack the bear, /Two fat buzzards on the run from there.”
And, incidentally, which ‘Jack the Bear’ is Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) referring to when he uses the expression in his famed 1952 novel ‘Invisible Man,’ which Wiz mentions above. Is it ‘Jack the Bear’ the trickster, or is it the other ‘Jack the Bear; who is often the butt of a trickster. Well, as far as I can make out, it is the slow-moving bear and not the swift one. In the prologue of ‘Invisible Man,’ the narrator’s statement, “Call me Jack-the-Bear,” which, incidentally, is an obvious play on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael,” it is clear that he is referring to himself as the Brer Bear of Uncle Remus and not the magical fellow of John the Conqueror.
<1952 . . . but [he] remembered only ‘Jack’ the Rabbit, ‘Jack the Bear’ . . . who were both long forgotten and now brought a wave of homesickness. . . . "—‘Invisible Man’ >
<1952 “I say this to assure you that it is incorrect to assume that, because I am invisible and live in a hole, I am dead. I am neither dead nor in a state of suspended animation. Call me Jack-the-Bear, for I am in a state of hibernation.”—‘Invisible Man’>
So, it almost seems to me that ‘Jack the Bear’ could be considered a Janus expression – an expression which is its own antonym. On the one hand it means fast and aggressive and moving/happening at a rapid rate or at top efficiency, and on the other it means slow and retiring and moving/happening at a slow rate or possibly at low efficiency. However, the vast majority of the current usage on the internet definitely favors the speedy, efficient interpretation and I found precious few of the other.
And BTW, as far as the phrase ‘Jack the Bear’ in the movie title (which probably comprised a large percentage of the Google hits), it was the nickname that the long-dead mother had given the young Jack, and which his traumatized, and temporarily mute, brother speaks when he finally breaks his silence at the end of the movie. The phrase has no great significance for the movie overall, as far as I can make out, although it provides a touching moment at the end. And my guess is that the only significance of the name (with none for the title of the movie) is that Jack’s mother probably had given it to him because he had been a spunky little active child. And with regard to the famous Duke Ellington tune, ‘Jack the Bear,’ it was probably named that because it was a fast-moving, aggressive, piece of jazz.
Ken G – December 30, 2004