Jack of all trades

jack of all trades by c robinson

Jack of all trades, master of none’ refers to a person that is competent in many skills but not outstanding in any particular one. The earliest recorded versions of the phrase do not contain the second part (indeed they are broadly positive in tone).

A Jack of all trades may be a master of integration, as such an individual knows enough from many learned trades and skills to be able to bring their disciplines together in a practical manner. This person is a generalist rather than a specialist. A person who is exceptional in many disciplines is known as a polymath or a ‘Renaissance man’; a typical example is Leonardo da Vinci. The phrase became increasingly cynical in connotation during the 20th century.

In Elizabethan English the quasi-New Latin term ‘Johannes factotum’ (‘Johnny do-it-all’) was sometimes used, with the same negative connotation that ‘Jack of all trades’ sometimes has today. The term was famously used by Robert Greene in his 1592 booklet ‘Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit,’ in which he dismissively refers to Shakespeare with this term (it was the first published mention of the Bard). In 1612, the English language version of the phrase appeared in the book ‘Essays and Characters of a Prison’ by English writer Geffray Mynshul (probably based on the author’s experience while imprisoned for debt at Gray’s Inn, London).

The ‘Jack of all trades’ part of the phrase was in common use during the 17th century and was generally used as a term of praise. ‘Jack’ in those days was a generic term for ‘man.’ The ‘master of none’ element appears to have been added later and the expression ceased to be very flattering. Today, the phrase used in its entirety generally describes a person whose knowledge, while covering a number of areas, is superficial in all of them. When abbreviated as simply ‘jack of all trades’ the user’s intention may vary. Sayings and terms resembling ‘jack of all trades’ appear in almost all languages. Whether they are meant positively or negatively varies, and is dependent on the context.

One Comment to “Jack of all trades”

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