Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Jack Of All Trades

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 3, 2010

The phrase “Jack of all trade, master of none” has been around for quite some time and still finds its way into conversations even today.   It’s an interesting phrase without a doubt that hails from the 18th Century.

Port Folio was a Philadelphia literary and political magazine, published from 1801 to 1812 by Joseph Dennie and Asbury Dickens.  In Port Folio 1.38, one of the journalists wrote:

… a Jack of all trades is good at none.

But like other idioms at Idiomation, the first reference found isn’t always the first published reference for an idiom. 

In 1704, the Boston News-Letter made its debut, “Printed by Authority,” and publication continued for 72 more years. It was the first true newspaper published in Boston, and in the colonies. The initial issue bore the date of April 24, 1704.  It was published by John Campbel, postmaster of Boston, and son of Duncan Campbel, the organizer of the Postal System in America.

In 1721, that phrase — with minor changes — was used in an article in one of their newspapers:

Jack of all trades and it would seem, good at none.

The phrase came from England, however.  The phrase appeared in Geffray Mynshul’s book Essays and Characters of a Prison written in 1612 and published in 1618:

Jack of all trades, master of none, though ofttimes better than master of one.

 However, with one more jump we learn that in 14th Century Medieval England, where Jack was any common fellow and so a jack of all trades was a common fellow who could do many different jobs.

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