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The meaning and origin of the expression: Jack the lad

Jack the lad

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Jack the lad'?

A conspicuously self-assured, carefree and brash young man; a 'chancer'.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Jack the lad'?

The earliest use of the expression came in an 1840 song Jack’s the Lad, with such descriptive lines as:

If ever fellow took delight in swigging, gigging, kissing, drinking, fighting
Damme, I’ll be bold to say that Jack’s the lad.

Who was Jack? Was he an real person? No one knows. It may be that 'Jack' was taken as a suitable generic name when the expression was coined, along the same lines as 'Jack of all trades' and 'Jack tar'.

Jack the ladIf Jack were an actual historical figure the most obvious candidate would be the celebrated Jack Sheppard, the 18th century thief who was caught and imprisoned five times but escaped four times. in the process becoming a popular hero. He certainly had the credentials to be a real Jack the lad, having made audacious escapes and recklessly carefree robberies. Unfortunately for him, he was guarded day and night during his fifth incarceration and was hanged at Tyburn in November 1724. He was 22.

Sheppard's exploits inspired pamphlets, ballads, plays and engravings, not least the portrait of him made by Sir James Thornhill, serjeant-painter to the crown, in the lad's condemned cell.

See also: Rough diamond.

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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