jackleg / jackknife

Jackleg is a U.S. southern slang adjective meaning unskilled or unqualified. The term almost certainly comes from jackleg knife (jackknife) and was probably originally used as jackleg carpenter, a carpenter with only the most basic set of tools.

The term dates to at least 1837. From the 4 March issue of Spirit of the Times from that year:

He is no more to be compared to Osceola than a jack-leg lawyer to Cicero.

Use in the sense of a knife dates to at least 1672, in the Account Book of Sir J. Foulis:

For a Jock the Leg Knife 00l. 08s. 0d. Scots.

This is interesting because it predates the earliest known appearance of jackknife by some decades. Jackknife is an Americanism and is generally thought to be from one of the senses of jack referring to a mechanical contrivance of some sort. It dates to at least 1711 when it appears in the Official Records of Springfield Massachusetts:

One Dozen of Jack Knives, at six pence the knife.

So jackleg knife may be the original form, with origins in Scotland or the north of England where it developed into the form jockteleg. David Dalrymple’s (Lord Hailes) 1776 Glossary of Scottish words says:

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.

Phonologically, a transistion from Jacques de Liege to jockteleg and jackleg makes a lot of sense, but other than this source and a couple of 19th century references, no trace of this cutler or his handiwork has been found. This explanation remains an intriguing possibility, but has yet to be proven.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Historical Dictionary of American Slang; Dictionary of American Regional English)

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