Posted by James Briggs on April 15, 2000
In Reply to: Jack posted by ESC on April 13, 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."
I've been away for a couple of days, hence my somewhat delayed input to this item.
"Jack" is a name commonly used for men in general such as in "Jack of all trades" or "every man Jack of them". The origin of Jack goes back to French where the name for a peasant is Jacques Bonhomme in turn from Jacque a leather jerkin worn by peasants. The diminutive "jacket" lives on in English today.
See also: the meaning and origin of 'Jack of all trades'.