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shameless pleading





Knaves & Jacks

But I was really good at 52 Pick-up.

Dear Word Detective:  Early in Dickens’ Great Expectations, when Pip first meets Estella, she exclaims in dismay, “He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” This got me to wondering why the King and Queen should have a knave as their constant companion, how he came to be called the Jack, and whence the class distinction between the two terms. This might not even be a word origins question, but I’ll bet you know the answer. — Harold Russell.

That’s an optimistic but not unreasonable bet, although I must tell you that I just called my broker and short-sold myself on this one. But my answer, even if hilariously wrong in the parts that make any sense at all, won’t be a total loss. I plan to bundle all my flops into a book at year’s end and sell it on Amazon. I already have friends lined up to give it four-star reviews, the cover, featuring Anna Chapman in a deerstalker and cape, is awesome, and Angelo Mozilo has promised to write the foreword.

Y’know, come to think of it, book publishing does bear an uncanny resemblance to the whole collateralized debt con. Perhaps that’s why my agent lives in the Hamptons and I, to put it mildly, don’t.

Onward. This is the point when I caution that my only experience with playing cards was an inexplicable winning streak in Go Fish when I was eight. I don’t even know how to play Solitaire. Yes, I am sad. But I do know that the terms “knave” and “jack” in cards both refer to the lowest-ranking court card in each suit, just below the King and Queen.

The “knave” cards in a modern deck of cards usually depict a rather dashing fellow, in full face or profile depending on the suit, nattily attired but absent the crown worn by the King and Queen. The “knave” is actually a young man or boy serving as an attendant in the royal court, which fits nicely with the original meaning of “knave.” Derived from Germanic roots, “cnafa” in Old English meant “a boy, a young male servant,” and in modern English its descendant “knave” settled into meaning “a male servant, usually of humble origin and menial station” (as opposed, for instance, to a knight). “Knave” in this sense was a fairly neutral term, but gradually underwent a process of “pejoration” and took on its modern meaning of “scoundrel, unscrupulous man” probably due to class prejudice against the low origins of most knaves. Interestingly, both the “court servant” and “dishonest creep” senses of “knave” were in use when the character of a knave first appeared on playing cards in the mid-1500s, but the card name definitely reflected the dutiful kind of “knave,” a recognized member of the royal court.

“Jack” is a familiar form of the common proper name “John,” and has long been used as a stand-in name for “the common man,” just about any worker (as in “lumberjack,” “steeplejack,” etc.), and even common tools (as in the “jack” that lifts a car). The use of “jack” as an alternative name for the “knave” on playing cards first appeared around 1674, or just a century after the “knave” itself appeared in the deck. That was, oddly enough, also just about a century after “jack” had undergone a process of “pejoration” parallel to that of “knave” and was commonly used to mean “a low-bred or ill-mannered lout.”

While “knave” and “jack” were used as names for the same playing card, “knave” was long considered the more “proper” name for the card (and still is more commonly used in Britain), most likely because it reflects an awareness of the original royal court origin of the character. “Jack” by that time had already been in use for so long in various forms of slang that even if it didn’t conjure up visions of a ruffian, it probably still reeked of the streets to many people. Thus Estella, adopted daughter of the extremely proper Miss Havisham, would have considered Pip’s use of the term “jack” an amusingly lower-class locution, worthy of her derision.

7 comments to Knaves & Jacks

  • Tygr

    One of my father’s favorite quotes on the subject:

    “A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
    base, proud, shallow, beggarly … action-taking knave” Earl of Kent, King Lear; Act II, Scene 2.

  • Louise Hope

    I always thought Harold Russell was the guy who won an Oscar for getting his arms shot off.

  • Dan S.

    I read somewhere that “Jack” became the common term for the card when letters were added for easy identification; “K” stood for King, so some other letter had to be used for what had been called the Knave. Perhaps they could have used “N” as a phonetic rendering of Knave, but they didn’t.

  • Sam Long

    If we still used Anglo-Saxon lables for cards, we would have “C” for “cyning”, king; “C” for “cwen”, queen; and “C” for “cnafa”, knave. Then things would be really confusing.

  • YossiD

    In Hebrew, the knave/jack has been promoted to royalty and is called “nasich” meaning prince.

    I wonder why there isn’t a fourth face card with a lady servant/princess.

  • Jasper

    Thanks for this – interesting to discover the history of the two words.

    Quick note though – you’re wrong to say that knave is still more common in Britain today. The vast majority of people here call it a Jack. It is almost always printed as a J on card packs. Sometimes people do call it a Knave but it’s either used ironically by someone who is aware that it is an archaism, or ostentatiously by someone who thinks it will impress others.

  • Bob

    Thanks. I was thinking King, Queen, “Jack”?
    “Why not Prince? Is Jack an archaic synonym for Prince?”
    I never thought of servant. Your explanation is convincing. I hope it’s also correct.

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