Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

How Cliché: The “J” Phrases

There are not too many notable cliché “J” phrases, so let’s look them over.

Jack of all trades: someone who is able to do everything. This phrase dates to around the 1600s, Shakespeare’s time, yet there was a prevailing thought that if someone is good at everything they will not be outstanding in anything. Ouch. That’s harsh. I have moved away from saying Jack of all trades and just go with my personal reference of calling someone a MacGyver if they can fix anything and everything. MacGyver, I’m talking about the 80’s version, not the reboot. Great show. Angus MacGyver could take chewing gum and a paper clip and save the world from bad guys. He rocked an awesome mullet, which alone made him memorable.

image: Wikipedia

Jet set: the socially fashionable group. This term was introduced in the 1950s when airplanes became jets and moved people around quickly from one hot spot to the next. Flying was still out of easy reach for most people and mainly the affluent could afford jet travels. Not sure if jet set still applies today since platforms like Hopper make it more affordable to bounce from one place to the next more easily.

Jockey for position: to get into an advantageous place or position. A horse race term that literally meant that the jockeys were vying for the best position on the track. It later transferred to other situations such as the 1955 London Times that included the sentence, “Lawyers jockeying for position to appear before the right judge.” These suit and tie folk are smiling now, but it may not be so pretty once the gate bell rings, “And they’re off!”

image: Idioms4you

John Hancock: a person’s signature. A personal favorite. John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence in a large and bold manner so that King George could read it. Today, anyone’s signature on anything is considered a John Hancock. Kings not included.

image: Online Library of Liberty

Johnny-come-lately: a newcomer or someone arriving late. A nineteenth-century British seaman would be referred as Johnny Newcomer. This term became Johnny-come-lately in the United States.

image: Amazon

Johnny-on-the-spot: someone who is available at the right time. An early nineteenth American term that is not as popular as it once was when it appeared in the 1896 Artie by George Ade: “I could see that a Johnny-on-the-spot…was trying to keep cases on her.” Although it’s pretty clear that the phrase still has found its way to being useful.

image: johnny rentals
image: johnnysvegas

Jump at the chance: to grab an opportunity. Strangely enough this expression was likened to a rooster jumping at a berry. Apparently Sir Walter Scott liked the expression and would refer to someone jumping at the “ready penny.” It certainly shows a degree of eagerness.

image: Free Dictionary

Jump down someone’s throat: to rebuke someone sharply. A metaphor still in use from its start in the late nineteenth century.

Jump the gun: to start too soon. An easy one to figure out when thinking about how sport participants are not supposed to set off before the starter’s gun goes off. To do so, to jump out into the race before the starter indicates to go, could scratch the participant from the race, let alone get the other participants a tad upset at the false start. Originally the expression was “beat the pistol,” which changed to its present form by 1942. The expression is a metaphor that goes far beyond athletic competitions.

Just deserts: a deserved reward or a deserved punishment. I would consider getting dessert a reward, except notice the spelling—“desert” refers to “deserve” not in cheesecake or pudding after the main meal. A mid-eighteenth century proverb: “Desert and rewarde be oft tuned things far of,” which means what one deserves and the reward they receive is not always the expected. Just deser is indeed different than just dessert.

Any surprises! I always thought it was “dessert” and wondered why someone would fling out, “they got their just dessert.” They weren’t talking about a slice of pie. Now I know.

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10 thoughts on “How Cliché: The “J” Phrases

  1. I do believe I am more active in the J phrases than any other yet.

  2. petespringerauthor on said:

    I’ve always liked the phrase, “jack of all trades but master of none.”

    One my wife and I use pretty often after we waste a bunch of time on the phone is “quit jerking me around.”

  3. A fantastic selection (as always), but wait; no “Jumping Jehoshaphat?”

  4. I think it’s interesting that Neil Gaiman based The Graveyard Book on the concept of Jack of All Trades.

  5. A fun and interesting read! Thanks for sharing.

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