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Jacob’s join

Q From Ian Sanderson: Any help on the origin of the phrase Jacob’s join would be appreciated.

A Never mind whether anybody else finds World Wide Words valuable; for its author it is highly educational. I’d never encountered this term before, so had to investigate. Luckily, it is mentioned in two reference books, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, by Eric Partridge, and in Oops, Pardon Mrs Arden!, by Nigel Rees.

Eric Partridge describes it as “the eating equivalent of a bottle party”, in which each participant brings along as much food as he or she is likely to want to eat, but puts it into a common stock for the communal meal. (This was once common practice in rural or poor communities, and there were other names for it, such as the American potluck and Eric Partridge’s suggestion of faith supper in church circles. In Australia and New Zealand such gatherings were often advertised in terms like “Gents half-a-crown, ladies a plate”, with the intention, sometimes misunderstood by new immigrants, that the plate should have food on it!)

The term Jacob’s join is well known in and around Lancashire. Eric Partridge and Nigel Rees both record that people from that English county have told them about it. However, nobody seems to know where it comes from. This is hardly surprising: there are many such sayings, often with quite wide circulations, whose origins are totally obscure. In this case, the connection is presumably with the biblical Jacob, he of Jacob’s ladder. Could it refer to the mess of pottage (a dish of stew, in modern language) for which, the Bible tells us, Esau sold his birthright to his twin brother Jacob?

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 27 Apr. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 27 April 2002.