In my family many of us have names beginning with J – two Justins, Judy, Jessica Jane, Janet Joy (me), Jake, James, John and so on.

My gorgeous little nephew (in the pic above) is called Jack. When I was in South Africa this summer we spoke about how many sayings there are in English that have the name Jack in them

  • Jack in the box
  • Jack of all trades
  • Jack the lad
  • Jack the Ripper
  • Jumping Jack Flash

and so on.

Today, the wonderful phrases.org had an article on these idioms

‘Jack’ phrases

The origin of the many
phrases that contain the name Jack

If it is true, as I’m sure it is, that the
phrases in a language define a culture’s interests and preoccupations then the
English-speaking world must be fascinated by people. English phrases frequently
include names. Some of these refer to actual individuals, for example, ‘Gordon Bennett!‘, ‘Sweet Fanny Adams‘ and the numerous people referred to in Cockney rhyming slang, but more often than not the person referred to is
imaginary. Examples of phrases that include invented names are ‘the life of Riley‘, ‘heavens to Betsy‘ and ‘moaning Minnie‘.

Jack appears in more phrases than does any
other name. That might be expected as Jack is a colloquial form of John and,
for the period in which the majority of these phrases were coined, John was the
most common boy’s name amongst English speakers. Jack was the generic name for
the common man; a lad, a fellow, a chap, but also with the hint of knave or
likeable rogue. ‘John’ appears in our phrases and sayings hardly at all and
this is probably because ‘Jack’ was considered the more interesting character.
The use of ‘Jack’ with the meaning of ‘young rogue’ dates back to the 16th
century and examples are known from Nicholas Udall and others in Middle
English. An early example in a form of English that is easily accessible to us
now is found in Shakespeare’s Taming of Shrew, circa

A mad-cap ruffian and a swearing Jacke.

Some well-known linguistic Jacks are:

– Jack the Lad – a self-assured young man who is a
bit of a rogue. This is the archetypal Jack; young, roguish and male. See
more about Jack the Lad…

– Jack Tar – sailors coated their clothes and the
ropes of their ships to make them weatherproof. They even smeared their hair
and beards to avoid stray wisps getting caught in the rigging. What better name
for sailors than Jack Tar?

– Jack of all trades – the common man, who will turn his
hand to any form of work. See
more about Jack of all trades…

– Jack Robinson – in the phrase ‘Before you can say
Jack Robinson’. Possibly a rare example of a Jack that was a real person. See more about Jack Robinson…

– All work and no play makes Jack a
dull boy
 – this
proverbial expression has been known since 1670.

Jack was the name given to many of the sprites,
imps and supernatural creatures that were imagined to have human form, for
example, Jack Frost (an imp that nips our ears and toes with cold), Jack o’
lantern (a fairy that lives in hedges), Jack-in-irons (a malevolent giant).

Jacks, being typically young and mischievous,
feature strongly in nursery rhymes, for example, Little Jack Horner, Jack Sprat
and Jack and Jill. The latter two of these pre-date their appearance in nursery
rhyme. Jack Sprat was the name given to any dwarf from the 16th century onward
and Jack and Jill was used as the name of any young couple as early as the

Cockney Rhyming Slang has
an association with roguish street trading and is another linguistic area where
Jacks flourish. Examples are: Jack Palancing (dancing), On your Jack (Jones
> alone), Jack-in-the box (pox), Jack Randle (candle).

I’ve not listed every man Jack as there are so
many – the OED includes over hundred of them. Time to jack it in I think.


This is one of my favourite sites. If you register they will send you a phrase a week. If idoms are your thing, then this site is right up your alley (see, an idiom!)


Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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