John Larrysson's Column: To Play the Jack

In my previous article, I explained how jack was slang for a common man. However there are some more unpleasant uses associated with lower class men. The word can be used in various expressions to refer to a robber. 

The old phrase to play the jack means to be dishonest. This meaning is related to the fact that the jack in a suit of cards is also called a knave - a word that once meant a servant boy or foot soldier but later came to mean a thief or troublemaker. It leads us to phrases such as a jack-in-a-box; in the 16th century this phrase meant a cheat who deceived people by switching empty boxes for others full of goods or money. By the 18th century the phrase was used for a toy with a scary doll on a spring inside a box. 

[audio 1]

This negative connotation of jack is also found in the nickname of an uncaught serial killer from 1888 London, who was called Jack the Ripper. To hijack something is taking over another's property, especially a moving vehicle, without permission. A similar UK slang term is one who jacks (meaning robs with violence) vehicles on the highway and is a highwayman. More recently hijack may be used to describe taking over another’s computer account. A jack sauce is a saucy, impudent or presumptuous man. In Shakespeare's Henry V, "His reputation is as arrant a villain and jack sauce as ever walked upon God's earth, in my opinion." Such a person might be expected to carry a lead-filled leather club, called a blackjack (also called a slapjack, especially if it has a flattish profile). This use of jack is not just for a criminal, but a lower class criminal. 

[audio 2]

Supernatural troublesome jacks also exist. In the spring, England has a magical nature spirit called Jack in the Green. However Jack in the Green has an adversary. England gets frost, a thin coating of ice left by the magical nature spirit of winter Jack Frost. If your nose gets cold from the winter weather, that is naughty Jack Frost nipping (pinching) at your nose. Before the days of central heating and double glazing, it would be common in northern winter mornings to wake up to find that Jack Frost had drawn icy patterns on the bedroom windows. There was also an evil urban spirit called Springheel Jack.

[audio 3]

There are some crude terms using jack which are associated with lower-class males. These terms are however not suitable for a family publication. 

Some people are so pathetic that they aren't good enough to be a jack. One who does not know jack, does not know what every ordinary working class man knows. Jack Sprat is a poor man who does not get enough to eat. 

The full Oxford English Dictionary ( has 17 entries and extensive descriptions about many varied uses for jack. There are too many to usefully cover. However if you encounter a jack-word just remember that the term suggests a lower class working man.

[audio 4]

Related article: The Prefix Jack

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


NOTE: Starting in 2016, this column has been published once every two weeks, on every other Tuesday.

General Enquiry: We welcome enquiries and feedback. Please contact us through [email protected]