You Don't Know Jack

Being born a Jill, I always have had an involuntary relationship with the name “Jack.” For a few months in high school, I even dated a Jack. I was thrilled when we broke up because I no longer had to hear the nursery rhyme every day. But what is it about the name that has made it so dominant in our society? Why is it such a popular name?

All this and more can be revealed when you just admit that “you don’t know Jack.”

Image Via Computationally.Irrational [Flickr]

About the Name:

The name Jack came from a Middle English word, “jakke,” used to refer to any male, particularly those of the lower classes. Many people mistakenly believe the name comes from “Jacques,” which came from the names Jacob and James. English speakers associated the name Jack with John much more often than these other names, so the similar sounds are purely coincidental.

In the UK, the name is the most popular name for male babies between 2003 and 2007. In England, it has been the top name since 1994. The name is much less common in America, ranking in the top 30-40 names of male babies, but it is still much more popular than it was around 20 years ago, when it was closer to the 175th ranking.



"Jack of all trades" has been used for centuries and refers to a person who could do a variety of tasks. The use of the word “Jack” was only included because it was still being used as a generic term for ‘man’ at the time. It was not originally a negative expression, but at some point, people started adding on the phrase “master of none,” which made for a whole new meaning. It can now refer to either phrase and, as a result, can be bad or good depending on the context.


Image Via Joel Mark Witt [Flickr]

Because Jack was so often used to refer to social underlings, it was eventually used to refer to useless objects. Eventually, it began being used as a term for very little. The phrase “you don’t know jack” (with or without the expletive) has been used for decades to say someone knows very little. Yes, it seems to be a bit of a double negative, but expressions are commonly created and spread without any consideration for proper grammar.


A Few Facts About A Few Famous Jacks:

Jack Black is the son of two rocket scientists and a college friend of Tim Robbins. He often jokingly refers to Philip Seymour Hoffman as his “nemesis” because the two frequently audition for the same roles.


Jack Nicholson worked as a gofer at Hannah Barbara animation studios when he was young; when they offered him an animation job, he turned them down, saying he wanted to be an actor. Aside from being a good artist, he is also a great singer, as documented by his performance in Tommy. Fortunately, he stuck with acting and is tied with Walter Brennan for the title of male actor with the most Oscar wins.

Source Image ViaMharrsch [Flickr]

Jack Lemmon was not only a great actor, but also a great, self-taught pianist; he wrote the theme for the 1980 movie Tribute. When he first started acting, studio head Jack Warner wanted him to change his name to “Jack Lennon” so critics wouldn’t have the chance to say that his performance in a given film was a lemon. Jack convinced him the name would be compared to Lenin, which was even worse.


Jack Kerouac was born to French-Canadian parents and did not learn English until he was six. He originally started writing On the Road in French and actually has two unpublished novels in the language as well. He was enrolled in the US Merchant Marines during WWII, but was honorably discharged on the grounds of psychiatric issues. At one point, he was arrested for helping a friend, Lucien Carr, hide the evidence after murdering a stalker.

Source Image Via Tompalumbo [Flickr]

Jack products:

The Jack in card decks was originally a knave card. The name wasn’t changed until the mid-nineteenth century, when card manufacturing became a big business and the companies realized having “Kn, Q, K, A” abbreviations were too confusing. They opted for the use of “J” instead. In the UK, they still commonly refer to the “Jack” card as a “Knave.”

Source Image Via Tadson [Flickr]

Jack Daniels opened his distillery in Moore County, Tennessee in 1866. When the state enacted prohibition in 1910, the factory reopened in St. Louis, Missouri and Birmingham, Alabama, but none of the alcohol made in these factories was ever sold due to quality control issues. The Tennessee ban on alcohol wasn’t repealed until 1938, but even today, the county the alcohol is produced is still a dry county.


Jack In The Box started out as a burger joint in San Diego named Topsy’s. The locations all had a circus theme, which is where the Jack In The Box name came from. When the company started losing major market shares in the early 80’s they killed off “Jack” and moved to create more upscale fast food for yuppies. After their e coli scare in the early 90’s though, the company almost went bankrupt, but was saved, largely due to the resurrection of their famed Jack character.

Source Image Via Thomas Hawk [Flickr]

A Few Famous Fictional Jacks:

Jack Skellington, most widely remembered for his lead character in Nightmare Before Christmas, is a reoccurring character in Tim Burton films, appearing in Sleepy Hollow, James and the Giant Peach and Beetlejuice. Although his talking voice is done by Susan Sarandon’s ex-husband, Chris, his singing voice is done by Danny Elfman.

Source Image Via Veronica Bautista [Flickr]

Captain Jack Sparrow was originally supposed to be a much more minor character, who was merely intended to guide Will Turner through the movie. Johnny Depp’s performance was so well received though that the character’s entire role was reprised and he became one of the most adored characters of the movie. In fact, a back story was later created for him and turned into a children’s book series, Pirates of the Caribbean: Jack Sparrow.


Storybook Jacks:

Jack and The Beanstalk is based on an old oral story of Jack the Giant Killer. While many of the tales try to moralize Jack’s behavior, the most popular version leaves Jack as kind of a jerk who robs someone, manipulates his wife and then kills him…all on the grounds that the man is a giant.


Jack Be Nimble was a nursery rhyme that never made sense to me as a child. Interestingly, it seems to be one of the few with a very clear meaning, as jumping over candlesticks was a game and fortune telling method in the mid-nineteenth century. If one could clear the candlestick without putting out the flame, they were said to have good luck coming their way.

Source Image Via ABakedCreation [Flickr]

The famed Jack and Jill rhyme originally was Jack and Gill and there are a variety of stories involving the origins of the song. Also, although we normally only hear the first verse of the song, there are actually four commonly accepted verses. The full rhyme goes:
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.

Up Jack got and home did trot
As fast as he could caper;
And went to bed to mend his head
With vinegar and brown paper.

Jill came in and she did grin
To see his paper plaster;
Mother vexed did whip her next
For causing Jack's disaster.

Now Jack did laugh and Jill did cry
But her tears did soon abate;
Then Jill did say that they should play
At see-saw across the gate.

Source Image Via gfpeck [Flickr]

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I don't recall anyone mentioning Jack Barry or Jack Narz. But that's okay- practically no one knows who they were.

Jack21Spades at AmericaOnLine dot com
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The Guns of Will Sonnett Episode A Son For A Son: The Only Time 3-Time Oscar Winner Jack Nicholson Ever Appeared With 3-Time Oscar Winner Walter Brennan

I was able to get a somewhat blurry screen capture (they were only onscreen together for just a moment).
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I admit it took me a minute to realize that Jack Black wasn't the product of a strange love triangle, but that that he had two rocket scientist parents AND he was the college friend of Tim Robbins.

The "he was" part was an important addition that assisted in my realization.
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