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!