Stupid Question ™
Aug. 2, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: What is the deal with older men named John being referred to as “Jack”?
—anonymous, Chicago, Illinois
A: “Jack” has been a nickname for “John” since the days of Middle English around A.D. 1200.
It’s not only applied to older men, but in some areas may be dying out and retained only by relative old-timers. As a “John” myself, dating to the 1970s, I’ve never been called “Jack.” But President John Kennedy, for example, born in the 1920s, was famously known as Jack.
Originally written as “Jacke” (or any other similar spelling variants), it was initially pronounced something like “Jack-eh,” with two syllables, before settling into its snappy one-syllable modern form.
Where it came from is a matter of scholarly debate. The traditional assumption was that it came directly from the French name Jacques, itself a rendering of the Biblical Greek Jacob (or James, in English usage).
Very early on, “Jack” was used as a generic name to refer to any (usually male) peasant or commoner—just like “Jacques” was in France. (This sense is retained in the more recent US slang usage of “Jack” meaning a generic name to call a male stranger, and in generic workman terms like lumberjack and steeplejack. And, it must be said, in generic names for male animals, such as “jackass.”)
But in English, “John” was also used as a generic name in the same way. So “Jack” could just derive from that.
And indeed, there is a solid case for “Jack” being derived from “John.” In the earliest known uses of “Jack,” it is clearly being used as a nickname for “John.” (It’s worth noting that Jack and John sound much more similar in British pronunciations than they do in American; and that “Jan” was a common rendering of “John” in the era.)
Also, it is known for a fact that one diminutive endearment form of “John” around the same time was “Jackin” (also “Jankin” and other forms). By the same token, “Dickin” was a nickname for Richard and “Robin” a nickname for Robert. Those nicknames became shortened through time to “Dick” and “Rob.” It is logical to think “Jackin” followed the same course to “Jack.” (Though language is rarely logical.)
An interesting sidelight is the word “jacket,” which indeed came to us from French. It’s the diminutive form of “jaque,” meaning any kind of outerwear for the upper body. Similar terms existed in a variety of European languages, including the Germanic “jacke” and Dutch “jak.” The origin of the term is unknown, but the Oxford English Dictionary says the French term seems to have inspired the rest, and that it may have originated as a reference to some garment typically worn by “the Jacques,” the French peasantry.
This sheds little light on our discussion, however, because no one has found any direction connection between “Jack” and “jacket.” The nickname origin seems persuasive.
Whatever its source, “Jack” was widely used enough to be treated as a name in its own right as early as the late 1200s.