This post is no more than idle chit chat and surmising, but I find it can be fun at times to have a good ponder as to why things have the names they have. When there isn’t a brawl in the pub here, this is the kind of nonsense conversations that can come out. With many names the origin is obvious such as the smoothing plane. So then I like to puzzle; why the Jack?
The obvious connection would be for the name Jack plane to have something to do with that saying ‘The Jack of all Trades’. But then I use a lot of old tools and with these the saying just doesn’t fit; a wooden Jack can more or less only do one thing. It cuts rough and that’s about it. It’s one of my most used tools but certainly not a multi tasker.
A modern hand plane is much more versatile and I can easily set my bevel up Jack to give an exceptional finish if I want to. Or I can open up the mouth, set the cut deep and remove material roughly and quickly. But even with a multi tasking tool like this, it’s a Jack of only one trade and not them all. You can’t use it for pottery, thatching or masonry – only for woodwork.
So if the saying can’t fit an individual tool then it can only fit the man behind it.
This of course makes perfect sense. Whilst we’ve always had specialist trades there’s also always been the chaps living out in the sticks (the countryside) who’ve had to get to grips with a vast mix of skills. Out of necessity he’s had to be able to turn his hand to a bit of everything; he’d knock up furniture for the home, repair the roof, forge implements for farming. He wouldn’t be finely skilled at any one thing but he could get by at everything, just roughly and without a professional’s finesse.
The country was built up on common men like this. He was common and his work was rough. That was Jack.
I remember reading a piece a while back that went in to the origins of the name Jack. It was a fairly simple association; Jaques (the French for Jack) was the most common name for a man in France and so became used to describe the common man. It became used as description within many everyday items to express that they were used roughly, robustly and commonly. We use simply ‘Jack’ for a mechanical lifting device dealing with heavy weight. A roasting jack is used to rotate heavy meat at the spit, and a jack plane is a large plane for rough, heavy work.
Being our most common name here in England John gets thought of in much the same sense. Clearly we imported Jack for one reason or another?
I quite enjoy this little story for the origin. The Jack plane is so called because it’s the roughing plane. I do wonder if it would have been simpler to have called it that, but then I also ask if it would be more fun to take a similar approach with the smoother… “I’ll just finish this surface with my Claude-Francois!”
I wrote this post last night after a skinful so if it’s not making any sense, try reading it again after you’ve had a skinful yourself!
Chris Schwarz says
Also to support your point:
Jackknife — the most common sort of knife
Jackboot — the most common sort of boot
Jack the Ripper…. uh, never mind.
Cheers, there’s certainly quite a few of them when I start to think about it. The trouble with us woodworkers is we like to explore too much- I don’t imagine a mechanic sits and wonders why it’s called a jack as he’s busy raising a car! Perhaps it’s because it’s such a historically rich subject for us.
Jointer/joiner Has always fasinated me spelling and enunsiation,,,and what ever happened to the common use of the FOREPLANE,,, did it disapear with the wider use of metal planes???
John, Jack , Richard,
It’s Friday evening, just had a skinful…. Makes perfectly sense to me..
From my knowledge of French, I think that ‘Jacques’ is the French form of Jacob, or in English, James.
The British political supporters of King James and his descendents in the 18th century rebellions were called ‘Jacobins’.
I’m not sure that the French have a diminutive of Jean (or John) that equates with the British Jack.
I think your bang on right there with alternate forms of names in the languages i.e Jacques in France and James in England. However I understand that the associations of being common / rough which became used with the word Jacques meant that in this use the word became somewhat disconnected with its meaning as a name. When introduced in this context in to England it seems that the word Jacques became spoken as Jack rather than translated as we might otherwise do with a name. Hope that’s making some sense!
Basically, it’s not so much about direct translation of the names but the associations of the words.
Reading this with glass or two of Green Jack Rippa. All very sensible discussion to me. Cheers
John Coyne says
I often ponder the etymology of woodworking (http://lumberjocks.com/affyx/blog/29740)! Great post! …
So your post got me surfing the web about the history of planes and came across this great article http://www.handplane.com/879/a-brief-history-of-the-woodworking-plane/ which had me looking deeper and I found this detail from Durer’s Melancolia: http://pfollansbee.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/durers-melancolia-detail.jpg …
… which (to make a long reply longer), leads me to my question. If you were to try to recreate the plane from Meloncolia, would you make the body from a single timber? the horn would be weak, I would think. How about a piece of the tree with a small branch where the horn is? I think that’s what I’ll look for and tuck it away in my to-do list.
Again, thank you for the post – it made for a much more interesting afternoon than what I should have been doing.
Thanks John, it looks like you’ve set me up for a good evening of reading. I’ll go and take a look at all of those, cheers.
Interesting discussion – i’ve just poured myself another glass of port to make sure that I understand it fully.
Rob Stoakley says
Is this the new low angle jack?
Just the old one posing for a picture. New one’s on it’s way 😉
you hit the jackpot with this post…..
I’m Irish and the pisser over here is called the ‘Jacks’. What do I win? Absolutely lovin the the blog and the work behind it. And yes I have a skinful right now or otherwise I’d still be lurking.
Old Baleine says
Each of my planes has an important function, every man jack of them!
John S says
Oh dear,now I’ve got an identity crisis, and is my Little John now a Little Jack? Most of the work I do on it is quite rough! Will a skinfull help??
So what happened to your Jack after you dropped it?
-By the way : with the hard winter coming, you might want to consider a heated jacket…
Not everything is french, is it not simply an english medieval diminutive for John. So long ago a Little John bench (if anyone would call a bench John) would have been a Jack bench.
If you could only have one plane on the market at the moment which would it be???
John Coyne says
Far eastern wood butcher says
Not to mention Jackass like me