etymological question: "jack shit"

Jesse Sheidlower jester at PANIX.COM
Wed Oct 11 18:07:20 UTC 2000

> As I argued yesterday, the evidence from Farmer & Henley (1896) makes
> it appear more likely that the relevant history traces back to a 17th
> century coin regarded as essentially worthless and/or to an
> expression in U. S. thieves' jargon for a small coin, in which case
> "not be worth (a) jack" would antedate "not know jack".  (Recall the
> "He wou'd not tip me a jack" citation from 1725.)  The transfer to
> the epistemic context would occur later (cf. "not worth beans" vs.
> "not know beans (about)").   Most minimizers originally referred to
> objects of minimal quantity or value in the relevant domain, and it
> seems to be more plausible that the epistemic (to not know jack) or
> action (to not do jack) domains would be developments of the earlier
> monetary ones.  Once the connection with currrency was lost, it would
> have been naturally for the reanalysis and compounding ("jack" +
> "shit") to proceed, although this is admittedly speculative.

Larry, while the information you cited in yesterday's post was
quite interesting, I wonder how you would address the gap in
time between these examples and the various more recent phrases?

Jesse Sheidlower

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