When make-do won’t do.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve recently run into the word “jackleg” — one I’d never seen before. Not that I thought I’d seen every word, but something this odd usually shows up somewhere in the reading I’ve done. I’m assuming it’s a regional word, but I’ve no idea.  Apparently it means “unscrupulous” or “without professional standards.” Any idea where this word comes from? — Barney Johnson.

Thanks for asking this question. I’m not just being being polite in saying that; I’m really glad you asked it. I did a column on “jackleg” way back in 1998, but I came up somewhat empty-handed. So when I received your question, I went looking to see if anyone had made any progress on determining its origins in the thirteen years since I tackled it. As we say in the word origins biz, bingo. Thanks to the work of several researchers, we have a good hunch about the origin of “jackleg.”

The definition of “jackleg” as an adjective to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definitely deserves a round of applause: “Incompetent, unskilled; unscrupulous, dishonest. Frequently used of lawyers and preachers.” The OED pegs the term as a US invention, dates its first appearance in print to 1850 (“A party of some twenty of the most notorious rode up, headed by what is there [i.e. in Texas] known as a ‘jack-leg’ lawyer”), and gives roughly the same period for its use as a noun to mean “An incompetent or unskilled or unprincipled person.” The Historical Dictionary of American Slang gives slightly earlier examples of the adjective, and notes that it has also been used to mean “hastily thrown together, ragtag, shoddy,” often referring to work done by a “jackleg” (untrained) carpenter or builder.

The OED doesn’t suggest an etymology for “jackleg” apart from pointing out that it’s a combination of “leg” and “jack” (short for “John” and often used as a generic name for “the common man”). Pointing to the similar “blackleg” as a colloquial term for a dishonest gambler, the OED notes simply that “As in other slang expressions, the origin of the name is lost,” apparently including “jackleg” in that “lost” group.

Fortunately, back in 2001 the American Dialect Society mailing list rode to our rescue with an interesting discussion of “jackleg.” The British etymologist Jonathon Green suggested that “jackleg” might be related to the 18th century British term “jack-a-legs,” meaning a simple folding knife with a broad, square blade of the sort used by unskilled carpenters who lacked sophisticated tools. In extended use, “jack-a-legs” appeared in the US as the adjective “jack-legged” or “jakeleg,” meaning “unskilled.”

Of course, that just shifts the mystery one step back, leaving us wondering where “jack-a-legs” came from. On the ADS list, Grant Barrett then helpfully pointed to the OED entry for “jockteleg,” a Scots word (with related forms “jacklag,” “jack-o-legs,” “jockeylegs” and others) that means “folding knife” (and thus is almost certainly the same word as “jackleg”). A note in the OED quotes a glossary of Scots compiled by Lord Hailes around 1776: “The etymology of this word remained unknown till not many years ago an old knife was found having this inscription Jacques de Liege, the name of the cutler [knife-maker].” The OED then quotes two other sources attesting to the existence of this Jacques de Liege. So it seems that this knife-maker, by inscribing his name on his knives, gave us the American slang term “jackleg.” The OED expresses some skepticism about this story, but they do say that “On the face of it this account is plausible.”

I suspect that the term “blackleg,” meaning a crooked gambler, might be simply an extra-derogatory variant on “jackleg.” But the real kicker to this story is that this same Jacques de Liege, assuming he actually existed, may also have been the mysterious “jack” in “jack knife.”

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