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Alternative forms[edit]


Compare blackleg (a person who replaces striking workers; a cheater) and such expressions as jack of all trades, every man jack.


jackleg (not comparable)

  1. (US) Amateur, untrained; incompetent.
    • 1841, Letter to the editor, The Southern Planter, Volume I, No. 1, January 1841, p. 12,[1]
      The next year I had a projecting kind of jack leg carpenter, from Hanover, living with me in the capacity of overseer []
    • 1941, Martha Colquitt, Interview published in Slave Narratives, Library of Congress Project, Volume 4: Georgia Narratives, Part 1,[2]
      Grandma didn’t think chillun ought to see funerals, so de first one I ever seed, wuz when ma died two years atter de War wuz done over. A jackleg colored preacher talked, but he didn’t have sense ’nuff to preach a sho’ ’nuff sermon.
    • 1957, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, Wolfbane, Chapter 11, in Galaxy Science Fiction,[3]
      He was a doer, not a thinker; his skills were the skills of an artisan, a tinkerer, a jackleg mechanic.
    • 2010, Jabari Asim, “Day Work” in A Taste of Honey, New York: Broadway Books, p. 189,[4]
      At the gas station on the corner, a jackleg work crew was attaching plywood to the windows.
  2. (US) Dishonest, unscrupulous.
    • 1911, Peter B. Kyne, Captain Scraggs or The Green-Pea Pirates, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, Chapter 14,[5]
      The little nosy reporter with the hair was fair crazy to come, but McGinty gets a jackleg doctor to examine him an’ swear that he’s sufferin’ from spatulation o’ the medulla oblongata, housemaid’s knee, and the hives.
    • 1921, Sumner Charles Britton, Dreamy Hollow, New York: World Syndicate Company, Chapter 4, pp. 49-50,[6]
      Villard’s great fortune should not be allowed to “dangle” in plain sight of “jack-leg lawyers,” while he, Parkins, awaited final results of the proceedings.
    • 1988, Joyce Carol Thomas, Journey, New York: Scholastic, Chapter 1, p. 27,[7]
      When I went to the so-called authorities for help I ran into jackleg politicians, wheeler-dealers, henchmen, finaglers and wire-pullers.
  3. (US) Ineptly built or operated; makeshift.
    • 1889, John McGovern, David Lockwin: The People’s Idol, Chicago: Donohue, Chapter 12,[8]
      The train is late [] . ¶ “Well, if I come to such a place as this I must expect a jackleg railroad [] .”
    • 1989, Jack Vance, Madouc, Novato, California: Underwood-Miller, Chapter 7, p. 168,[9]
      “With the first good rain the entire jackleg contraption might collapse around my ears []
    • 2005, William Hoffman, Lies, Montgomery, Alabama: River City Publishing, Chapter 23, p. 226,[10]
      Driving the secondhand Chevy pickup, he visits not only major car dealerships but also every jackleg garage he happens upon in dusty sun-blasted towns of the Deep South.
    • 2012, Stephen King, The Wind Through the Keyhole, New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 176,[11]
      [] he went first to the barn [] and made a jackleg bed with hay and an old mule blanket.


jackleg (plural jacklegs)

  1. A type of drill operated by means of compressed air.
  2. (US) An amateur; an untrained or incompetent person.
    • 1846, Editor’s Table, The Knickerbocker, Volume 28, No. 1, July, 1846, p. 87,[12]
      [] I, gentlemen and ladies, are a rale Scientificky! I ain’t none of your jack-legs.
    • 1894, Mark Twain, The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy Those Extraordinary Twins, Hartford, Connecticut: American Publishing Company, p. 311,[13]
      Would the reader care to know something about the story which I pulled out? He has been told many a time how the born-and-trained novelist works; won’t he let me round and complete his knowledge by telling him how the jack-leg does it?
    • 1955, Flannery O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” in A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, p. 58,[14]
      “Lady,” he said, jerking his short arm up as if he could point with it to her house and yard and pump, “there ain’t a broken thing on this plantation that I couldn’t fix for you, one-arm jackleg or not [] .”
    • 1999, David Horsley, Into the Wind, Houston, Texas: Winedale Publishing, “Tops for Trees,” p. 180,[15]
      If it were up to me, we’d have a city ordinance against incompetent pruning of trees. You need a permit to unclog a sewer or fix a light switch, but any jackleg with a chainsaw can climb up a ladder and undo in five minutes what Mother Nature took decades to accomplish.
  3. (US) A shyster or con artist; a gambler who cheats;[1] a generally dishonest or reprehensible person.
    • 1985, Wesley Ellis, Lone Star and the California Oil War, New York: Jove, Chapter 9, p. 121,[16]
      [] we ain’t called on to believe every smooth-talking jackleg who wanders in here.”
    • 1997, Jan Karon, Out to Canaan, New York: Viking, Chapter 7, p. 113,[17]
      “Guess what th’ low-down jackleg has done now.”

Derived terms[edit]

Usage notes[edit]

Although the term most often carries negative connotations (inept, dishonest), it may also have positive ones (self-taught expert, hands-on learner). Occasionally it is used as a generic pejorative intensifier, equivalent to damn, out-and-out, etc., e.g. a jackleg crook, a jackleg bastard.


  1. ^ Tom Dalzell (ed.), The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English, New York: Routledge, 8th edition, 2009, p. 554.