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The meaning and origin of the expression: 'Jack' phrases

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'Jack' phrases

The origin of the many phrases that contain the name Jack

If it is true, as I'm sure it is, that the phrases in a language define a culture's interests and preoccupations then the English-speaking world must be fascinated by people. English phrases frequently include names. Some of these refer to actual individuals, for example, 'Gordon Bennett!', 'Sweet Fanny Adams' and the numerous people referred to in Cockney rhyming slang, but more often than not the person referred to is imaginary. Examples of phrases that include invented names are 'the life of Riley', 'heavens to Betsy' and 'moaning Minnie'.

Jack appears in more phrases than does any other name. That might be expected as Jack is a colloquial form of John and, for the period in which the majority of these phrases were coined, John was the most common boy's name amongst English speakers. Jack was the generic name for the common man; a lad, a fellow, a chap, but also with the hint of knave or likeable rogue. 'John' appears in our phrases and sayings hardly at all and this is probably because 'Jack' was considered the more interesting character. The use of 'Jack' with the meaning of 'young rogue' dates back to the 16th century and examples are known from Nicholas Udall and others in Middle English. An early example in a form of English that is easily accessible to us now is found in Shakespeare's Taming of Shrew, circa 1616:

A mad-cap ruffian and a swearing Jacke.

Some well-known linguistic Jacks are:

- Jack the Lad - a self-assured young man who is a bit of a rogue. This is the archetypal Jack; young, roguish and male. See more about Jack the Lad...

- Jack Tar - sailors coated their clothes and the ropes of their ships to make them weatherproof. They even smeared their hair and beards to avoid stray wisps getting caught in the rigging. What better name for sailors than Jack Tar?

- Jack of all trades - the common man, who will turn his hand to any form of work. See more about Jack of all trades...

- Jack Robinson - in the phrase 'Before you can say Jack Robinson'. Possibly a rare example of a Jack that was a real person. See more about Jack Robinson...

- All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy - this proverbial expression has been known since 1670.

Jack was the name given to many of the sprites, imps and supernatural creatures that were imagined to have human form, for example, Jack Frost (an imp that nips our ears and toes with cold), Jack o' lantern (a fairy that lives in hedges), Jack-in-irons (a malevolent giant).

Jacks, being typically young and mischievous, feature strongly in nursery rhymes, for example, Little Jack Horner, Jack Sprat and Jack and Jill. The latter two of these pre-date their appearance in nursery rhyme. Jack Sprat was the name given to any dwarf from the 16th century onward and Jack and Jill was used as the name of any young couple as early as the 1450s.

Cockney Rhyming Slang has an association with roguish street trading and is another linguistic area where Jacks flourish. Examples are: Jack Palancing (dancing), On your Jack (Jones > alone), Jack-in-the box (pox), Jack Randle (candle).

Union Jack - this isn't a direct reference to the name Jack but to the jack-staff, where the flag was originally flown.

I've not listed every man Jack as there are so many - the OED includes over hundred of them. Time to jack it in I think.