Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

Pet name of the given name John. The term was originally (in late Middle English) used to denote an ordinary man, and in the mid 16th century, a youth, hence the knave in cards, and the use of the word to denote a male animal. The word is also used for a number of devices saving human labour, as if one had a helper. The general sense of ‘labourer’ arose in the early 18th century, and since the mid 16th century, the notion of ‘smallness’ has arisen.

every Jack has his Jill all lovers have found a mate; proverbial saying, early 17th century.

Jack and Jill a nursery rhyme, in which Jack and Jill, who go up a hill for water, both fall down, with Jack breaking his crown and Jill tumbling after; it has been suggested that the origin is political, with Jack and Jill representing Henry VII's ministers Empson and Dudley, who were executed soon after Henry VIII's accession. An alternative explanation is that the rhyme is of Scandinavian origin, in the story of two children (Hjuki and Bil) who were stolen by the moon while drawing water. In North American usage, a Jack and Jill party is a party held for a couple soon to be married, to which both men and women are invited.

Jack and the Beanstalk a fairy story, recorded from the mid 18th century, about a poor boy who sells his mother's cow for a handful of beans; she throws them angrily away, but the ones that have fallen into the garden root and grow into an enormous plant. Jack climbs the beanstalk, and discovers a ferocious giant; with magic help, he first steals from the giant and then by a trick contrives his death. A beanstalk is proverbially fast-growing, but in this story it may also represent the Norse world-ash Yggdrasil.

Jack Frost a personification of frost; recorded from the early 19th century.

Jack Horner a nursery-rhyme character, ‘Little Jack Horner’, said to have ‘pulled out a plum’ from a ‘Christmas pie’; it has been suggested that this refers to a real Jack Horner who cheated his way into property at the dissolution of the monasteries.

jack-in-office a self-important minor official; the term is recorded from the early 18th century.

jack-in-the-box a toy consisting of a box containing a figure on a spring which pops up when the lid is opened; the term is recorded from the early 18th century.

Jack-in-the-green a man or boy enclosed in a wooden or wicker pyramidal framework covered with leaves, in traditional May Day celebrations.

Jack is as good as his master proverbial saying, early 18th century; Jack is used variously as a familiar name for a sailor, a member of the common people, a serving man, and one who does odd jobs.

Jack of all trades and master of none a person who has simple skills in a number of areas is not fully competent in any of them; Jack here is used in the sense of an unskilled worker, as contrasted with a master of a trade who had completed an apprenticeship. The saying is recorded from the mid 18th century.


Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.