etymological question: "jack shit"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Oct 12 04:00:55 UTC 2000

At 8:39 AM -0400 10/12/00, Douglas G. Wilson wrote:
>>>Q: "What did you do all day?"
>>>A: "Jack." = "I didn't do jack." = "I did jack." = "Jack shit." = "I didn't
>>>do shit." = ...
>>these all occur, but not in general interchangeably.  You're not
>>saying they're all synonyms, are you?
>Not in general, but nearly so in the exact context of this Q-and-A.
>My point is that there is a tendency to fill in the blank with an almost
>random obscenity or rude word. Logically preferable alternatives such as "I
>didn't do a single erg/joule/watt-hour of useful work" just don't occur
>(physicists and others, correct if necessary!).

Not just (random or non-random) obscenities, though.  Other
minimizers have their literal meaning bleached out as well--cf.
STITCH (I didn't do a stitch of work all day) or Fr. PAS (originally
'step', as reinforcer of pre-verbal negation on motion verbs, now
generalized marker of negation).  I think what (or watt) rules out
ergs and joules is not their referential meaning but their register.

>My point is rather general and tentative: there are "didn't do/know shit"
>(rude/obscene), "didn't do/know dick" (rude/obscene), "didn't do/know
>f*ck-all" (rude/obscene), etc. ... If I hear "didn't do/know jack" in a
>similar context and register, I can't help thinking that it may have a
>rude/obscene origin also -- assuming that there are reasonable candidates!

How about "beans", though, which does occur in the 'not know ___'
frame?  No obscenity here, although I guess there's a very indirect
route to (auditory) rudenss.
>The 'small coin' hypothesis would remain another tentative possibility, and
>doubtless there are many others.
>A parallel is the derivation of "don't give a damn" from the dam,
>apparently a small coin used in India. I heard this when I was a child.
>Later I learned from what I thought was an authoritative source that this
>story is bogus, and that the original word was plain old "damn". Somehow
>this latter rings truer to me. What do the experts think today?

I don't know from experts, but I had been (no doubt mis)informed that
the original was 'not worth a tinker's dam', where this was some
small object distinct from both the curse and the coin.  I think
you're right (or at least the OED does), and the curse is the source.
Here's the relevant entry; I especially like the little poem from the
Eugenics Review (I guess my subscription must have lapsed).
Used vaguely (in unconventional speech) in phrases
not worth a damn, not to care a damn, not to give a damn. (Cf. curse sb. 2 .)

        1760 Goldsm. Cit. W. xlvi, Not that I care three damns what
figure I may cut.

        1817 Byron Diary Wks. (1846) 423/1 A wrong..system, not worth a damn.

        1827 Scott Jrnl. (1890) II. 22 Boring some one who did not
care a d-- about the matter, so to speak.

        1849 Macaulay Life & Lett; (1883) II. 257 How they settle the
matter I care not, as the Duke [of Wellington] says, one twopenny

        1895 J. L. Williams Princeton Stories 165, I don't give a damn
for the girl.

        1929 Eugenics Rev. July 86/2 See the happy moron, He doesn't
give a damn. I wish I were a moron. My God! Perhaps I am!

        1939 Wodehouse Uncle Fred in Springtime xviii. 263, I don't
give a single, solitary damn.
If you follow the suggestion and visit the "curse sb. 2" cite, you
find the below entry, where Jesse's point about the lack of
continuity of citings comes up in a different context.  I wonder,
though, whether these may really have involved the use of the
cover-term "curse" as a sort of euphemistic variable to avoid the
REAL curse word that a speaker would have actually used in friendly
conversation.  (The "cress 2" mentioned lists various cites of "not
worth a cress" and its relatives, dating from 1325 to 1440.)
In such phrases as not worth a curse, not to care a curse, the
expression possibly comes down from the ME. not worth a kerse, kers,
cres: see cress 2.

But historical connexion between the two is not evidenced, there
being an interval of more than 300 years between the examples of the
ME. and the modern phrase; and damn (cf. care v. 4 a) occurs as early
as curse, so that the coincidence may be merely accidental.

        1763 T. Jefferson Let. Writings 1892 I. 346, I do not conceive
that any thing can happen..which you would give a curse to know.

        1813 Moore Post-bag ii. 93 For, as to wives, a Grand Signor
Need never care one curse about them!

        1826 Blackw. Mag. XIX. 357/1 The Chapter on Naval Inventions
is not worth a curse.

        1827 Scott Jrnl. (1890) II. 43 He will not care a curse for
what outward show he has lost.

>I guess "not worth a rap" truly comes from the word for a coin?
So avers the OED.  (Evidently, a rap was worth half a jack.)  Note
too the transfer from 'not worth a rap' to 'not care a rap', although
there are no epistemic cites provided ('not know a rap about'):

RAP, 1
a. A counterfeit coin, worth about half a farthing, which passed
current for a halfpenny in Ireland in the 18th c., owing to the
scarcity of genuine money. Now only Hist.

        1724 Swift Drapier's Lett. Wks. 1755 V. ii. 14 Copper
halfpence or farthings..have been for some time very scarce, and many
counterfeits passed about under
        the name of raps.

        1776 R. Twiss Tour Irel. 73 The beggars..offering a bad
halfpenny, which they call a rap.

        1827 J. Wilson Noct. Ambr. Wks. 1855 I. 182 Ane o' the bawbees
o' an obsolete sort..what they ca' an Eerish rap.

b. Taken as a type of the smallest coin; chiefly in negative phrases,
esp. without or not a rap.

        1823 Byron Juan xi. lxxxiv, I have seen the Landholders without a rap.

        1830 Marryat King's Own xxxv, `You must fork out'. `Not a rap'.

        1881 Miss Braddon Asphodel xiv. 158 A man who dies and leaves
not a rap behind him.

c. fig. An atom, the least bit. Chiefly as prec., and esp. not to care a rap.

        1834 Ainsworth Rookwood iii. v, For the mare-with-three-legs
[the gallows], boys, I care not a rap.

        1875 Punch 18 Sept. 113/2 It don't matter a rap whether it's
rough or fine.

        1882 Miss Braddon Mt. Royal III. iv. 79 If I thought you cared
a rap for me, I should stay.


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