The Grammarphobia Blog

Jacques in the beanstalk

Q: I was reading your recent blog entry on nicknames and got to wondering where mine comes from. Did “Jack” evolve from “Jacques”?

A: “Jack,” a nickname for “John,” first appeared in tax rolls and other official documents in England in the 13th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

For the first couple of hundred years, the spelling was all over the place: “Iakke,” “Iacke,” Jakke,” “Jacce,” “Jacke,” and so on. “Jack” began showing up in the 16th century, especially when linked with the female name “Jill.” By the 18th century, the modern spelling was firmly established.

The origin of “Jack” is in dispute. Although it’s been “generally assumed” that the nickname comes from “Jaques,” the Old French version of the modern “Jacques,” it might actually have originated in England, according to the OED.

The dictionary says “a strong case has been made” by E.W.B. Nicholson, a former librarian of the Bodleian at Oxford, “for its actual origination as a pet-form” of “Johan,” “Jan,” or “John.”

I should mention that early on the familiar nickname was used (as a proper noun, capitalized) in a generic way to refer to any common man of the people. For example, Shakespeare, in The Taming of the Shrew (1596), refers to a “mad-cap ruffian and a swearing Iacke.”

This usage has survived into modern times. Even now, some people (primarily men, I notice) will address a stranger as “Jack.” A related usage is the expression “every man jack” to mean every individual.

In the 1400s, the word “jack” was used to refer to the little mechanical man that periodically emerged from a clock and struck the hour or half-hour or whatever. It was sometimes called the “jack of the clock” and sometimes just the “jack.”

This use of “jack” as a mechanical contrivance, the OED says, led to another meaning: a device that takes the place of a man or saves labor.

From the 1500s on, all kinds of labor-saving tools were called “jacks”: things for turning spits to roast meats, tools with rollers and winches, rack-and-pinion devices for lifting weights, a “bootjack” for pulling off one’s footwear, a “jack” for raising the chassis of a carriage, and finally the “jack” found in every car trunk.

As for Jack cheese (uh-oh, I’m thinking about food again), it’s full name is Monterey Jack. The OED says the cheese is named for David Jacks (who was born David Jack and lived from 1822 to 1909). He was a Scottish-born dairyman who first produced the cheese in Monterey County, California, in the 1880s.

I’ll bet the Gold Rush prospectors loved it, every man jack of them.

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