Posted by ESC on April 13, 2000
In Reply to: Jack of all trades, master of none. posted by Bill Merritt on April 12, 2000
: Does anyone know the origin of the phrase Jack of all trades...? I have done a little research and it appears to come from the Middle Ages in reference to "Jacks" that went from town to town doing menial labor. Can anyone verify, confirm or assist in finding if this is correct? Thanks, bill
"Jack of all trades and master of none. Said of someone who has a basic familiarity with many things but isn't an expert at anything. In 1612, appeared in 'Essays and Characters of a Prison' by Geffray Mynshul. The phrase has been in use in the United States since 1721..." From "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996).
The "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988) gives further insight into the phrase:
"jack of all trades, master of none" has been around at least since 1600. Anyhow, the 'jack of all trades' part of it was circulating at that time and, generally speaking, it was a term of praise, rather than disparagement, as it is today. One writer noted 'Old Lewis' was sort of 'Jack of all trades,' which made the rest of the tradesmen jealous.' 'Jack,' in those days was a generic term for 'man.' Later the 'master of none' was added and the expression ceased to be very flattering. Today it is used to describe a person whose knowledge, while covering a number of areas, is superficial in all of them. If you want a very elegant word to describe such people, call them 'sciolists' (pronounced SY-uh-lists). They won't know what you're saying and will probably take it as a compliment."
See also: the meaning and origin of 'Jack of all trades'.