Jack Defined and the History of Jacks

Have you ever wondered about the word JACK? It was applied to many things, including animals and people. For instance, it was often a reference for an inferior animal, which included the JACK-ASS, JACK-HARE, JACK-RAT, JACK-SHARK, and JACK-SNIPE. Besides inferior animals, the word was also used to describe inferior articles and inferior men and even served as term of contempt. There were also boys named JACK who acted like men and nursery rhyme or fairytale characters called JACK. Various proverbial phrases became associated with JACK, as did certain instruments. If that isn’t enough, inferior armor known as JACK existed and so did several infamous JACKs that you don’t mind reading about but probably don’t want to know personally.

Jack The Giant Killer, Author's Collection

Jack The Giant Killer. Author’s collection.

JACK was used regularly in deprecating ways when it came to men. For instance, one deprecating reference relates to JACK-A-DREAMS, because he was so busy dreaming, he was said to be a man of inaction. JACK FOOL was more frequently called TOM FOOL, and JACK-A-DROGNES was not just a fool, he was also said to be good-natured and lazy. But perhaps the biggest fool was JACK ADAMS. JACK-SNIP was used to represent all the incompetent tailors in the world, and JACK-IN-THE-WATER served as the foolish attendant at the waterman’s stairs, who was apparently at least smart enough to charge a “few coppers” to get his feet wet.

Jack In The Beanstalk, Author's Collection

Jack In The Beanstalk. Author’s collection.

The word was also frequently used as a term of contempt in the 1700 and 1800s. For instance, anyone called a JACK-ASS was considered to be an unmitigated fool and JACK-DAW was described as a prating nuisance. JACK O’ THE BOWL was a Swiss brownie or house spirit who placed a bowl of fresh cream on the roof of the cow house each night, although I’m not sure why. JACK-A-ANPES or JACKANAPES essentially equaled a JACK OF APES and referred to an impertinent, vulgar prig. Even the JACK O’ LANTERN that we so proudly display on Halloween had a negative connotation. It meant fool’s fire.

Sometimes the term was applied to boys who had to behave or act like men. For instance, the famous JACK FROST is the personification of ice, frost, sleet, snow, and freezing weather, but he is nothing more than a mischievous boy. The JACK OF CARDS is also a boy and the son of the king and queen of the same suit. Two other famous boys who had to grow up fast are JACK IN THE BEANSTALK and JACK THE GIANT-KILLER. The first one possessed three treasures — a harp, bags of money, and a golden goose — whereas the second had four marvelous tools — a cap of wisdom, an invisible coat, shoes of swiftness, and a sword that could cut through anything.

Jack Sprat and his wife. Author’s collection.

Other legendary JACKs may not have had treasures or marvelous tools, but they did become famous because of nursery rhymes and Mother Goose, who herself appeared around 1816, one year before Jane Austen died. One famous nursery character is JACK SPRAT. He was the man who could eat no lean and his name bears the same relation to a man that a sprat (a small marine fish) bears to the herring or mackerel. There is also the famous JACK who went up the hill, broke his crown, and tumbled down with Jill following close behind. THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT involves a JACK too, and, it is likely no one will forget poor LITTLE JACK HORNER because he always sat in the corner.

Over the years numerous proverbial phrases have become associated with JACK. For instance, TO PLAY THE JACK means to lead astray similar to a JACK O’ LANTERN, a word that first appeared in writing in 1799. JACK also became the generic name for a husband and Gill or Jill (short for Gillian or Julienne) served to represent his wife. This resulted in the phrase, A GOOD JACK MAKES A GOOD JILL. In other words, a good husband makes a good wife. There is also the phrase, EVERY JACK SHALL HAVE HIS JILL, which likewise refers to the idea that every man can have a wife if he wants one.

Jack and Jill, Author's Collection

Jack and Jill. Author’s collection.

The word was also used as the name for certain instruments. For example, a JACK at one point referred to the figure outside of a public clock that struck the bell on the hour. There was also the JACK that replaced the turnspit boy, and the JACK-IN-THE-BOX that delighted so many children when it popped out of the box. LIFTING-JACKS were used to lift the axle-tree of a carriage when its wheels were cleaned, and if you needed to turn a spit in the chimney flue, you used a SMOKE-JACK. But probably one of the most important instruments during the Georgian Era associated with JACK was the BOOT JACK. It originated in 1788 and aided all the people who were not rich enough to afford a servant to remove their boots.

Unfortunately, not everything named JACK was as useful as the BOOT JACK. The name was also applied to imitation or inferior things. A wooden horse used for sawing wood was called a JACK, and a small drinking vessel made of waxed leather was another type of JACK. A coarse, long towel that was reserved specifically for a servant’s use was called a JACK-TOWEL, whereas the vessel used by barbers to heat water for customers was called a JACK-PAN. Counters used at gaming tables to portray wealth were known as A JACK AND A HALF-JACK because they resembled a sovereign and a half. Additionally, fishermen wore cumbersome JACK-BOOTS because they were thick and served as armor for their legs.

Little Jack Horner, Author's Collection

Little Jack Horner. Author’s collection.

Speaking of armor, JACK also referred to inferior armor that consisted of a leather surcoat worn over the hauberk between the fourteenth and seventeenth century. At the time this was an important and valuable feature if you wanted to avoid injury or death because it was sword proof and created from a surcoat padded with metal. The JACK was “formed by overlapping pieces of steel fastened by one edge upon canvas, [and then] coated over with cloth or velvet.”[1] Although JACK armor may have been viewed as inferior to other armor, the English peasantry used it as protective gear and wore it regularly in skirmishes or when traveling from village to village.

There are several other interesting, or should I say, infamous figures attached to the name of JACK. One example is JACK KETCH. He was the infamous executioner for King Charles II in the late 1600s, but later his name became a nickname for executioners in general, among who are William Brunskill. In the early 1800s, there was also the infamous SPRING-HEELED JACK, a frightful devil-like thing who preyed on London pedestrians and had clawed hands and eyes that “resembled red balls of fire.”[2] But the most infamous of all was the serial killer JACK THE RIPPER. He cannot be forgotten because he terrorized the East End and committed numerous gruesome murders against prostitutes throughout the late 1800s. However, today, because of DNA testing, some historians claim that JACK THE RIPPER was Aaron Kosminski, a twenty-three-year-old Jewish Polish-born immigrant that lived in the area where the murders were committed.


  • [1] Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: Giving the Derivation, Source, Or Origin of Common Phrases, Allusions, and Words that Have a Tale to Tell, 1898, p 602.
  • [2] The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year, Volume 10, 1839, p. 29.

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