Monday, November 14, 2011

You Don’t Know Jack

A previous dissertation on “Jack-o’-lantern” kindled memories of a charming poem by the late John Updike in a collection called “A Cheerful Alphabet of Pleasant Objects,” in which various meanings of the word jack were celebrated.  It went: 


                               A card, a toy, a hoist,
                               a flag, a stay, a fruit,
                               a sailor, John, a pot,
                               a rabbit, knife, and boot;
                               o’-lantern, in-the-box
                               or -pulpit, Ketch, a daw,
                               a-dandy, of-all-trades,
                               anapes, an ass, a straw.
                                                            From The Carpentered Hen © 1958 by John Updike

Less poetic, but more exhaustive, is the Oxford English Dictionary, which devotes ten-and-a-half minutely printed columns to multiple definitions of jack, and also tells us of its etymology:           

“The actual origin is disputed.  It has been generally assumed to be the same word as French Jacques…also a familiar name for a peasant, a man of the lower orders (cf. Jacquerie).  But it has been used in English from its earliest appearance [which the OED places in 1302] as a by-name for John.  The Scotch equivalent form of the name is Jock but this has not the transferred senses of Jack.”  

Among those transferred senses, in addition to the ones Updike rhymed, are a serving-man, an attendant, a laborer, a machine for turning the spit in roasting meat, a contrivance for pulling off boots, part of a harpsichord or spinet, a small amount, a quarter of a pint, a small brick, a ladies’ man, a close-fitting garment, and a joint of mutton.  And those are just the tip of jack’s iceberg!  What a guy!

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is no Jack Updike, but he has his own litany of Jacks:

Albertson, Armstrong, Benny, and Carson, Cassidy, Dempsey, and Black,
Nicholson, Weston, Worthing, and Heifner, Macgowran, LaLanne, Kerouac,                             
Richardson, Robinson, Carter, and Daniel, Douglas, and Elam, and Bailey,
Kennedy, Klugman, London, and Frost, Kevorkian, Leonard, and Haley,                               
Ruby, and Oakie, and Nicklaus, and Lord, and Gelber, and Sparrow, and Warner,                  
Johnson, and Jones, and Lemmon, and Lang, and Palance, and Garner, and Horner,  
Lescoulie and Handy, McBrayer, and White, and Abramoff, Yates, and Hightower, 
Higgins, and Kemp, Webb, Wagner, and Smith, and Flash, and Valenti, and Bauer,            
Russell and Trussel, Teagarden and Warden, Welch, Soo, Paar, and O'Brien,                         
And that leaves but one, to finish the rhyme, and that would be Tom Clancy's Ryan.             

These are all the Jacks whose names have come to my attention,
But there may be many others I have failed to mention.                               



  1. You forgot ME! (The nieces and nephews have always called me Jack. If you really care I'll tell you why some day.)

  2. Well, I never! Who knew? Of course I really care.