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Q From Ray Franklin: Jake-leg is a very interesting word, a pejorative used by my Mississippi-born father to describe sloppy or inadequate work, and the person performing it.

A That was a question, right? If so, I’ll answer it.

Jake-leg is indeed an interesting American term. In the sense in which your father used it, it’s a variant of jackleg, a person who lacks the skills or training to do a job properly or who is unscrupulous, dishonest or without standards. Jackleg was created on the model of blackleg, with the first element changed to the name Jack, perhaps from a derogatory sense it had at the time. The first known example, from 1837, refers to a jackleg lawyer.

The Dictionary of American Regional English records jake-leg in the same sense as jackleg from the 1960s onwards. It may have been influenced by jake (probably from Jacob) in a Southern US sense of a rustic or uncouth or inexperienced man. However, the most probable reason is confusion between jackleg and an earlier sense of jake-leg from the 1930s.

The dictionaries say that jake in that term is short for Jamaica ginger. This variety was also known as white ginger, made by scraping and bleaching the roots. From about 1850, several US patent medicines were based on it. One was Sandford’s Jamaica Ginger, which was advertised in 1877 in the Janesville Gazette of Wisconsin with the bold and all-inclusive claims typical of the times:

It instantly relieves Cholera, Cholera Morbus, Cramps and Pains, Chronic Diarrhoea, Dysentery and Cholera Infantum, Diarrhoea in Teething, and all Summer Complaints, Dyspepsia, Flatulency, Sluggish Digestion, Want of Tone and Activity in the Stomach and Bowels, Oppression after Eating, Rising of Food, and Similar Ailments, Colds and Chills, Feverish Symptoms, Pains in the Bones, Catarrhal Symptoms, Rheumatic and Neuralgic Symptoms, Soreness and Pains in the Muscles and Joints.

Its cheapness and high alcohol content resulted in the medicine’s becoming a favourite of tramps, down-and-outs and the poorer class of person. A court case was reported in the Iowa State Reporter in 1889: “It was alleged by the prosecution that this demand for Jamaica ginger was not of a medicinal origin, and that many of the grocer’s patrons were Jamaica ginger drunkards, a species of inebriates by no means uncommon.”

In 1901, an article appeared in several US newspapers under the headline “Jamaica ginger. The great American tipple”, reporting the views of the Rev Dr James N Buckley that the drink was rivalled only by applejack as an intoxicant. The article commented:

While Jamaica ginger has a comparatively small sale in the larger cities as a “barroom” drink, there is not another concoction on earth that is more popular in temperance towns and crossroads stores. Let a town “go dry” and see how quickly the number of patrons — men — of the local drug stores will increase. Instances have been known in which all the bar rooms in towns which were suddenly declared “dry” by the vote of the people put their intoxicating liquors out of sight and became “ginger ale parlors”.

As you might guess, Jamaica ginger was widely taken up during the Prohibition period, when it continued to be sold because it was officially regarded as a health drink. Its name had by then been shortened to jake. The extract was drunk neat, or it was added to bathtub gin as a flavouring or diluted with soft drinks. When the authorities realised the extent of its sales they tried to crack down on it. One maker attempted to get around this in early 1930 by adding a phosphate ester, TOCP (tri-ortho-cresyl-phosphate), to the drink to increase its solids content and so mislead tests of its alcohol content. TOCP was a fuel additive and plasticiser that was thought to be harmless. In reality it caused an estimated 50,000 cases of a neurological disease from which many never recovered. One symptom was a high-stepping walk, caused by partial paralysis of the legs, in which the toe and heel would strike the ground on each step, making a characteristic sound.

This walk became known as Ginger jake paralysis, jakefoot, or jake-leg. The outbreak became the subject of several blues songs in and after 1930, such as the Jake Leg Blues, the Jake Leg Wobble and the Jake Liquor Blues. Willie Lofton rather confusingly sang:

I said jake leg, jake leg, jake leg, jake leg.
Tell me what in the world you going to do.
I said I drank so much jake, ooh Lord
Till it done give him the limber leg.
I say I know the jake leg, ooh Lord
Just as far as I can hear the poor boy walk.

The scandal — and the term jake-leg — became widely known at the time. As memories of these events grew dim in people's minds over the next couple of decades, it's not particularly surprising that a later generation should confuse jake-leg with jackleg.

By the way, though Rolf Harris’s comic song Jake the Peg may come to mind, I can find no evidence that connects either the song or the expression to 1930s America.

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Page created 08 Dec 2007