A “jack of all trades” is a man who can turn his hand to many things.
The phrase is often a compliment for a person who is good at fixing things, and has a very good broad knowledge, a generalist rather than a specialist. Sayings and terms resembling “jack of all trades” appear in almost all languages. Whether they are meant positively or negatively is dependent on the context.
The quasi-New Latin term Johannes factotum (Johnny do-it-all) was famously used by Robert Greene in his 1592 booklet Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit, in which he dismissively refers to actor-turned-playwright William Shakespeare with this term, the first published mention of the writer.
The English-language version of the phrase appeared in the book Essays and Characters of a Prison by English writer Geffray Minshull, originally published in 1618, and probably based on the author’s experience while imprisoned for debt.
The “master of none” addition began to be added in the late 1700s. The headmaster of Charterhouse School, Martin Clifford, in a collection of notes on the poems of Dryden, circa 1677 wrote: “Your Writings are like a Jack of all Trades Shop, they have Variety, but nothing of value.” Today, the full phrase generally describes a person whose knowledge, while covering a number of areas, is superficial in all of them. “Jack of all trades” by itself is an ambiguous statement; the user’s intention is then dependent on context.
“Jack” is a derivative of the common name “John” and has been used simply to mean “the common man.” This usage dates back to the 1300s and an example is found in John Gower’s Middle English poem Confessio Amantis, 1390. As “common men,” medieval Jacks were pretty much at the bottom of the social tree. The OED defines the generic meaning of the name Jack thus: “A man of the common people; a lad, fellow, chap; especially a low-bred or ill-mannered fellow, a knave.”
Various trades had Jacks: lumberjacks and steeplejacks, and sailors were Jack-tars.
Many tools were also named for Jack, for example:
Smoke-jack (a roasting spit)
Jack-plane (a basic carpenter’s plane)
Jack-screw (a lifting winch)
Jack-frame (a carpenter’s saw horse)
Boot-jack (for pulling off boots)
Jack-engine (a miner’s winch)
Jack-file (a coarse file)
I like the idea of being a Jack of all trades, because it provides more independence than being a specialist. I can cook, sew, paint my own house, do my own income tax, and run a business. I always dreamed of fixing my own car, too, but there just isn’t time to learn everything. Still, I think I can qualify as a Jill of all trades.