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Q From Andrew Haynes: When I filled in every last jack in a crossword puzzle today, I started wondering about the origin of the term. A Wikipedia entry for last man Jack claims the term originates from a cricketing pun. The poorest batsman, who goes in to bat last at No 11, is supposedly known as Jack because the jack is the 11th card in a playing card suit. This etymology seems ridiculously contrived. But do you have a better explanation? My guess would be a nautical derivation.

A I agree there’s little merit in the Wikipedia suggestion, though there is a very slight connection between the playing card and the expression. But to explain that requires us to look more deeply into the background of Jack.

Its first sense was as a pet form of John. Its early history is complicated. It began as Jehan, a form of John, and successively became Jan and then Jankin (Jan + the pet or diminutive ending -kin). This shifted to Jackin and then lost the ending again to make Jack.

This all happened in the 1200s. Not long after, it became a general way to refer to any ordinary man or a man of the people. There’s a parallel here with French Jacques, which was a familiar name for a peasant or a man of low social status, though the two names aren’t directly connected.

Later, Jack became a slightly dismissive term for a labourer or working man, which is why we have compounds like steeplejack and lumberjack, the one-time Jack tar for a common sailor (which I guess is why you thought of a naval origin), as well as phrases like Jack of all trades and Jack’s as good as his master. Jack was also applied to numerous machines that took the place of a man or lad doing some menial job — the device that helps you change a car tyre is a specific example that we still often use, but there are many, many others, whose specific origins are often hard to establish.

By the 1500s, Jack had gone further down in the world to mean not only a low-bred or ill-mannered person but an unscrupulous or dishonest man, a knave. This explains why knave and jack are used interchangeably for the playing card.

The phrases every man jack, every last man jack, last man jack (and less directly your every last jack) are all based on man jack, an early nineteenth-century elaboration of the idea of Jack as the average or common man. Some examples:

They begged hard a bunch of hot-house grapes; but he said that Sir Pitt had numbered every “Man Jack” of them, and it would be as much as his place was worth to give any away.

Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848.

“Gather up every one in camp,” directed Stimbol. “Have them up here in five minutes for a palaver — every last man-jack of them.”

Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1928.

It seemed rather visionary to expect that a crowd of store workers would enjoy getting out earlier than usual of a morning to sing a song. But they did, every last jack of them, and they sang right at the start.

Trenton Evening Times (New Jersey), 12 Oct. 1920.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 31 Mar. 2012

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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: 31 March 2012.