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Jackleg

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.”

20 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.

    • Lorri Robinson

      I’ve only ever heard it called “jackleg”, and it referred to preachers and lawyers who were perhaps a bit, shall we say, on the shady side of the street as far as their certifications went.

      I just used the term today in describing a preacher. He doesn’t have a degree in any sort of religious studies, he’s not ordained by any church, but he’s set up his own church and styles himself “Father”. A jackleg preacher if I ever saw one.

  • 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.

  • Richard Dale

    Cornish miners have spread around the world, are frequently followed by many relatives, and the name Jack was so common that introducing a new arrival as “me cousin Jack” became a cliché. In rock drilling, one man with a light sledge hammer and drill became a “single jack”. Two man teams, one holding the steel and the other with a heavy sledge, became “double jack”. As pneumatic tools became available, the one-man drill with a support leg is called a “Jack leg”.

  • Patsy

    Being reared in a working class, union family, I often heard the term “jackleg”. It was always derogatory and referred to someone who not only was unskilled, but was probably too lazy to even learn the job. The term “jackleg” was also used to speak of strike-breakers…union busters…scab laborers. Since many “scabs”, who worked for the Company during a major strike were unskilled and inexperienced, the title “jackleg” was appropriate in a union man’s eyes. Almost nobody could be “lower” on the humanity scale than a jackleg…a person did not respect nor uphold his working “brothers” in the labor force.

  • Vance Goss

    Sorry if this was mentioned already but I started reading this while digging into the origin of a specialized mining drill that has been used underground for about 100 years. It is also called a Jackleg, at least in the US. Elsewhere, like Australia, they call it an Airleg. It is composed of a pneumatic drill that is mounted on a swivel on top of a tubular, staged or telescoping pneumatic leg.

  • Randy Parker

    jmsalmon and Nick C seem to have the right origin. In the book titled Water for Elephants the circus roust a bouts drank Jamaican rum during prohibition. In order to be legally sold in the U.S.additives were mixed in the rum to make it poisonous.the effects of the poison caused the abusers to walk with a foot dragging shuffle. I believe this explaination is plausible. That explains the Jake Leg,Jake being an abb. for Jamaican.

  • Travis Smith

    I grew up in Texas and Oklahoma, where the term jake-leg is used to describe one who is not able to do quality work. Jake-leg carpenter carpenter is the most common use.

  • R Simpson

    Jackleg is a common mining term used to describe a pneumatically operated drill with an extendable, telescopic pneumatically operated leg. It consists of two main parts; the hammer, which is similar to a jack-hammer and the leg. While a jack hammer is used primarily for drilling vertically down, or slightly off vertical, down, addition of the pneumatic leg and associated valving and connections, allows the jacklleg drill to drill at any angle from below horizontal to horizontal to vertical, up. These are very commonly used in underground hard-rock mining and tunnel development. For untrained users, they can be very dangerous to operate. they are also very loud and both ear plugs and ear muffs should be worn when operating them.
    Jack knife is a very common term for a folding pocket knife, usually associated with a knife having one or two blades. When there are two blades, they are both hinged on the same end of the knife.
    Jack knife can also refer to a dive where the diver after leaving the diving board, bends and reaches for the toes. Next the diver extends fully, entering the water hands and head first

  • Elizabeth Gulley

    My father said the word Jack leg, was used to describe a medical problem wherein men who had abused moonshine walked in a certain way- a limp but also tremors.

  • Jack C. Gann

    My Father, who was born in 1902,
    always used the term jackleg for
    an unskilled worker. He used the
    word jackknife for a folding knife.
    He told me that his father had
    told him these terms. I’m sure that
    these terms go way back.

  • Rohame

    OK, this comes late into the tale,BUT.

    As a, near as dam it, Geordie from the UK, I grew up knowing that a Jack-knife was either a 2-bladed clasp knife (as issued to the Royal Engineers and most probably all other regiments) or the final position of an articulated lorry or car/caravan – Probably because it resembled a half-opened…. Oh, work it out. Anyway, that, to me, lends credence to good old Jaques. Who says the Japanese were first to nick good ideas?
    Somewhen I’ve picked up the concept of something unsatisfactory being ‘jake’ – never gave it much thought before but, in 20/20 hindsight this feels related to/corrupted from someone being “a jack-of-all-trades and master of none”.
    So we come to the alcohol problem: if jake is ‘substandard’ then anyone in a working class milieu (I just put that in to let you know I come from an upper-working/lower-middle class background but am snobbish enough not to admit it) with walking difficulties (sober or not) could well be ‘jake-legged)’. Usually on the night of payday b4 going home to an undeserved frosty reception! Sorry for any typo’s, blame the spellchecker – I will.

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