From a Knave to a Jack

“He calls the knaves Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!”

I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt for me was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.

She won the game, and I dealt. I misdealt, as was only natural, when I knew she was lying in wait for me to do wrong; and she denounced me for a stupid, clumsy laboring-boy.

              Charles Dickens, Great Expectations 

All Fours is a kind of seed-game from which other, better games have grown. I plan to write about it shortly, but I wanted to start by discussing its most lasting contribution to card lore: All Fours is the game that gives us the word “Jack” for the card then commonly known as a “Knave.”

Playing cards in Great Expectations

A Knave-like figure–the lowest rank in a royal court–appears in various guises in European decks: sometimes as a footman, a cavalier or knight, or a young man or woman. Their role is to be higher than the numbered cards, but lower than any court card. Traditionally, a “knave” was a serving boy of humble origin, or simply a male servant.

The game of All Fours probably arrived in England (and particularly in Kent) some time between 1621 and 1674 via the court of Charles II, and most likely originated in the Netherlands. The word “Jack” is probably a Kentish contribution. Although the reasons are lost in the mists of time, we can make a decent guess how the name came to be. In lower class English slang, a “jack” would have been shorthand for a laborer (eg, lumberjack) or a sailor. This may well have been how folk culture viewed the subservient “Knave” in comparison to the King and Queen of the royal suits. It’s as a good a guess as any.

In any case, “Jack” didn’t catch on until the late 19th century, when printer Samuel Hart started putting identifying letters on the corner of cards. These new cards were known as “squeezers” because they allowed you to “squeeze” your hand up tightly and just read the corner markings, as we do now. There was a “K” for “King,” a “Q” for Queen, and, not wanting to confuse matters by placing another “K” for Knave, he added a “J” for Jack as a reference to its name in All Fours.

An early “Squeezer”

In the early part of Dickens’ Great Expectations, which takes place some time after 1812, young Pip is mocked mercilessly by Estella for using the word “Jack” during a game of Beggar-My-Neighbor. The word was considered low, vulgar, and commonplace, rather than the proper term “Knave.” At this moment, Pip’s understanding of playing cards is as large an indication as his shoes or rough hands of the class gap separating him from Estella.

This would change by the end of the century. Knave became archaic and largely vanished, while the more commonplace word “Jack” took its place. It’s an interesting transformation. Remember: playing cards first emerged among the upper classes, and only gradually filtered down to the lower classes, most likely as wealthy card players passed old, worn-out decks down to their servants. The common folk made these cards–and the games played with them–their own, altering an element of high culture into one of popular culture in the process.

Next time you call that card a Jack, consider it a triumph of the working man. He’s a Jack because the common Englishman saw in him a fellow man of labor.

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