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Mind your language

Names, like drink, go by fashion

2 February 2019

9:00 AM

2 February 2019

9:00 AM

‘Sounds like fun,’ said my husband, wearing a hat with the sign ‘Irony’ in its band. He had read a review of ‘a gritty reworking of Shakespeare’s King Lear, set on the River Humber’. The name of the drama was Jack Lear.

A true drama that gripped the popular tabloids is that of Jack Shepherd, convicted in absentia for the manslaughter of a young woman he took out in a speedboat on the Thames, and now in jail in Georgia (on the Black Sea) facing extradition.

Shepherd’s namesake Jack Sheppard (1702-24) was celebrated as a jailbreaker after his conviction for burglary. His exploits remained famous enough for an unsuccessful film Where’s Jack?, starring Tommy Steele, to be made in 1969.


Jack is a hypocoristic or pet version of John, as Harry is of Henry. You might think it would be a version of James — Jacobus in Latin and Jacques in French. But it isn’t. In origin it is reckoned a shortening of Jankin.

Names, like drinks, go by fashion. Jack has always had the sense of ‘an ordinary man’. Every Jack must have his Jill, and Jack’s as good as his master.

Ordinary men are fashionable just now, as they were in Jack Sheppard’s day, at least in a fictional context; most readers of tales of Jack Sheppard would have preferred him not to burgle their houses. And Jack is sharp, a Jack the Lad, Jumping Jack Flash. If too fantastical, he becomes a jackanapes, just as daisies or cowslips of exaggerated form were widely known as galligaskins (ludicrous loose breeches) or jackanapes-on-horseback.

But in our generation, Jack sells well. Outdoor types buy Jack Wolfskin gear, not made out of wolfskin. A newly minted tradition of gentlemen Jack university-wear was launched in 1999 as Jack Wills.

Two years earlier, Jim Grant (under the pen-name Lee Child, which sounds suitable for a comedian, like Lee Mack, Lee Evans or Lee Kyle) had written the first of 23 novels about a mysterious stranger avenging crime. Being tall (like his creator, not like Tom Cruise who used to play him) the hero could have been a reacher in a supermarket, the author has said. Being just an ordinary Joe, he had to be a Jack.


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