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shameless pleading


When make-do won’t do.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve recently run into the word “jackleg” — one I’d never seen before. Not that I thought I’d seen every word, but something this odd usually shows up somewhere in the reading I’ve done. I’m assuming it’s a regional word, but I’ve no idea.  Apparently it means “unscrupulous” or “without professional standards.” Any idea where this word comes from? — Barney Johnson.

Thanks for asking this question. I’m not just being being polite in saying that; I’m really glad you asked it. I did a column on “jackleg” way back in 1998, but I came up somewhat empty-handed. So when I received your question, I went looking to see if anyone had made any progress on determining its origins in the thirteen years since I tackled it. As we say in the word origins biz, bingo. Thanks to the work of several researchers, we have a good hunch about the origin of “jackleg.”

The definition of “jackleg” as an adjective to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definitely deserves a round of applause: “Incompetent, unskilled; unscrupulous, dishonest. Frequently used of lawyers and preachers.” The OED pegs the term as a US invention, dates its first appearance in print to 1850 (“A party of some twenty of the most notorious rode up, headed by what is there [i.e. in Texas] known as a ‘jack-leg’ lawyer”), and gives roughly the same period for its use as a noun to mean “An incompetent or unskilled or unprincipled person.” The Historical Dictionary of American Slang gives slightly earlier examples of the adjective, and notes that it has also been used to mean “hastily thrown together, ragtag, shoddy,” often referring to work done by a “jackleg” (untrained) carpenter or builder.

The OED doesn’t suggest an etymology for “jackleg” apart from pointing out that it’s a combination of “leg” and “jack” (short for “John” and often used as a generic name for “the common man”). Pointing to the similar “blackleg” as a colloquial term for a dishonest gambler, the OED notes simply that “As in other slang expressions, the origin of the name is lost,” apparently including “jackleg” in that “lost” group.

Fortunately, back in 2001 the American Dialect Society mailing list rode to our rescue with an interesting discussion of “jackleg.” The British etymologist Jonathon Green suggested that “jackleg” might be related to the 18th century British term “jack-a-legs,” meaning a simple folding knife with a broad, square blade of the sort used by unskilled carpenters who lacked sophisticated tools. In extended use, “jack-a-legs” appeared in the US as the adjective “jack-legged” or “jakeleg,” meaning “unskilled.”

Of course, that just shifts the mystery one step back, leaving us wondering where “jack-a-legs” came from. On the ADS list, Grant Barrett then helpfully pointed to the OED entry for “jockteleg,” a Scots word (with related forms “jacklag,” “jack-o-legs,” “jockeylegs” and others) that means “folding knife” (and thus is almost certainly the same word as “jackleg”). A note in the OED quotes a glossary of Scots compiled by Lord Hailes around 1776: “The etymology of this word remained unknown till not many years ago an old knife was found having this inscription Jacques de Liege, the name of the cutler [knife-maker].” The OED then quotes two other sources attesting to the existence of this Jacques de Liege. So it seems that this knife-maker, by inscribing his name on his knives, gave us the American slang term “jackleg.” The OED expresses some skepticism about this story, but they do say that “On the face of it this account is plausible.”

I suspect that the term “blackleg,” meaning a crooked gambler, might be simply an extra-derogatory variant on “jackleg.” But the real kicker to this story is that this same Jacques de Liege, assuming he actually existed, may also have been the mysterious “jack” in “jack knife.”

10 comments to Jackleg

  • Bill Souder

    What a long jackleg answer to a simple question. Here’s all that needed said.
    An unskilled or unscrupulous person, often used to describe lawyers, preachers and the word detective.

  • Rex Fouch

    I searched for this etymology because my daughter, who is in college near Dayton OH used the term “jack knife” and her friends asked her where she came up with that bizzare term. They insisted it was “pocket knife,” and never heard it called anything else. She then asked me if I had playing a joke on her for 19 years (we use both terms in Michigan, but I guess I generally use the shorter one. I’m relieved to learn I wasn’t using a non-legit term all those years.
    Mr Souder–read Mr Johnson’s question again…more carefully this time.

  • Rex Fouch

    “bizarre,” that is

  • Mr.TracyCrawford

    A complete answer is as long as it takes to be complete. Thank you Sir for your diligence. You have increased my understanding and that is more than I could have asked.

  • Susan Rusciano

    I just purchased BJ Ward’s collected poems, titled “Jackleg Opera,” and not being familiar with the term, came across your entry. Thank you for your thorough explanation of the word and its origins. (I highly recommend the poetry volume.)

  • I believe that I may have the origin of the term “jackleg”. I’m not sure where I read this but I believe the term “jackleg” came about from the side effects of drinking an inferior alcoholic liquor made from the Jack Fruit. It seems the fermented juice from the Jack Fruit has a natural occurring chemical (neural toxin) in it that after fermentation causes intermittent paralyses in the legs and knees of the drinker. This resulted in strange staggering gate cause by the weakening of the legs and buckling the knees of those who drank it on a regular basis. Thus, a jackleg was a drunk or low life.

  • jmsalmon

    I heard a story about how the term jack leg drunk came about. Supposedly in Cloverport, Ky or along the Ohio River many years ago. Liquor was traded from Jamaica was traded. It was poisonous and the side effect was dragging one leg. Since the prominent members of these communities did not partake in drinking, they were busted when dragging their legs around town. Don’t know how true this is, but it makes sense.

  • Nick C.

    It’s Jake leg not jack leg. Coming from one of those tonics that were sold during prohibition.

    Wonderful article, thanks for digging.

  • G. Morris

    Terrific explanation. Makes perfect sense. Although I also share the OED’s skepticism over Jacques de Leige. My ancestors, most all of whom were from the British Isles, have used this term for at least a Century here in the States: a have a letter from an uncle written in 1859 that uses the word “jackleg (sic)” in this manner: “Cousin Press was taking a jacklegg to the beam when it fell and hit him on the head, liked to knock him to Kingdom’s door…” Since they were taking down a rickety old shed, I imagine Press was using a flat edge to pry a post and beam apart. I didn’t know for sure what my uncle might have meant, but this article gives me an insight. My family has always carried pocket knives, and although I’ve never heard one refer to his knife as a “jack leg” (jack knife, yes), the term “jack leg” is almost exclusively used to refer to someone unskilled in the building trades. So thanks for the detailed answer!

  • Brendan

    Ed’s explanation makes the most sense. My grandfather used the term and was curious as to it’s origin.

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