HISTORY | LANGUAGE
You Don’t Know Jack
Once upon a time, in a land far far away, there lived thousands upon thousands of Jack’s. So popular was Jack, that everybody wanted to be like him. Daughters fell in love with Jack. Mum’s wanted a child named Jack. And all the men admired Jack for the umpteen trades he could do. Unfortunately, Jack was a master of none of them.
The etymology of Jack dates back to the Hebrew Ya’akov, Jacob. As noted by the bible, Jacob was ‘one who seizes by the heels’ or a ‘spring-heeled Jack’. It wasn’t long before the name became twisted into the English version that was easier to say and even easier to write. The simpleton’s of the medieval world struggled with sounds.
Early history suggests the name began as Jehan, a form of John, and successively became Jan and then Jankin (Jan + the pet or diminutive ending -kin). This shifted to Jackin and then lost the ending again to make Jack.
This all happened in the 1200s. Not long after, it became a general way to refer to any ordinary man or a man of the people.
And so the world and his neighbor now knew Jack. For if you didn’t, then you weren’t someone with knowledge. So common was Jack, he became a symbol for all that was workable in the modern world. The upper-class, not wishing to soil that hands or minds simply referred to all the common laborers dismissively as Jack. These filthy men arriving from the village had tools for their menial jobs. Again, no need to wonder whose tool they were using as they all belonged to a Jack. Jackscrew, jackhammer, and bootjack. There was even single-jacking (one logger working on a tree).
Common as muck.
Why stop at naming men and their tools? The simple land was full of simple animals that needed a common name too. Enter Jack’s ass to help him with his labor. The pesky jackrabbit or the annoying jackdaw were shortly joined by the Australian kookaburra jackeroo — not an animal but a fresh-faced sheep rancher.
Jack crept into the lives of the young in the form of nursery rhymes. Jack be nimble and Jack may be quick but he struggled to walk down a hill with a pail of water. “I’m alright Jack,” Jill would yell as yet another day’s hard labor was sacrificed for Jack's poor hand-eye coordination. Jack would smile and remind Jill about all work and no play making him a dull boy before fondling Jill behind the cow-shed.
Jack’s reputation was forever soiled by the 1500s. He was now up to no good. He had gone further down in the world to mean not only a low-bred or ill-mannered person but an unscrupulous or dishonest man, a knave. This explains why knave and jack are used interchangeably for the playing card. He became synonymous with one who cheats and swindles by deceiving tradesmen also. Jack-in-a-box was not to be trusted as he switched boxes full of money for empty ones.
In the 1950s, the cool hipsters targeting the ‘straights’ with their beatnik poetry and love for all colors black, soon put a new spin on Jack. Jackaleg, jackalog, jackattack, flapjack, and the rather painful jactitation (involuntary twitching of poor Jack’s legs) all came into play. Skipjack was the upstart everyone needed to avoid.
Jack was everywhere.
Applejack, hijack, jackstraw (scarecrow), jack tar (sailor), jack o’lantern, jackdaw, jackhammer, carjack, jackknife, jackpot, lumberjack, union jack, and blackjack.
At the turn of the century, Jack was still topping the lists of favorite boy’s names in the UK for 2003–2007. In 1994, Jack was the most popular name in London. A survey in December 2008 showed that Jack was the most popular name in the UK for the fourteenth consecutive year since it overtook Thomas in 1994.
Don’t despair America, the frequency of Jack as a baby name has steadily increased from the 160–170 rank prior to 1991 to a rank of 35 in 2006.
Jack. A true man of the people.