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Why do we say "A jack of all trades and master of none"?

Well-Known Expressions

A jack of all trades and master of none

Meaning:

Generally used derogatorily to describe a person who claims a familiarity in many areas but lacks expertise in any of them.

Background:

The first recorded use of this expression is in Essays and Characters of a Prison by Geffray Mynshul (1612).

They seie, 'A good felawe is Jacke'.

Today, this expression is usually used in a derogatory fashion, but apparently this was not always the case and, as can be seen by the example above, "master of none" is a later addition.

Jack was a common name in the medieval period, and thus is simply a general reference to the common man. The same applies to other Jacks, such as Jack Sprat who ate no fat, and little Jack Horner who sat in the corner.

When one starts rummaging around the English language, many other references to Jack show themselves; for example in trades such as lumberjack, steeplejack, and Jack tar - a once commonly used (and non-perjorative) term to describe English seamen of the Merchant and Royal Navy, which extended to include members of the US navy around World War I. It is also found in the names of at least half a dozen tools, including the carpenter's general purpose jack-plane and the lifting device you have in the back of your car.

Similar sentiments to "a Jack of all trades" are expressed in other languages such as tout savoir est ne rien savoir (to know everything is to know nothing - French), and apprendiz de todo, oficial de nada (apprentice of everything and official of nothing - Spanish).

Alphabetical list of expressions

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