The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was first published at the end of the eighteenth century, and given that the current health crisis is giving too much time to read books, I thought I’d pick a daily word from it until I got bored….
Grose didn’t exert himself with his definition of this phrase, noting solely that it was “a sailor”. As this is a common phrase even now, a fair bit of work has been done by others in trying to work out where the term originally derives from. It’s likely that the ‘Jack’ was just a colloquial word for a man, but the ‘tar’ bit is more unknown. Sailors would sometimes put tar on clothing to make it waterproof, but ships were also known for their ropes covered in tar, so either route might have led to the origins of the phrase.
It’s thought that the term would have been relatively new by the time that Grose wrote about it, probably dating to around the mid to late eighteenth century by the time it was in more common usage. There are though some references to it at the beginning of the eighteenth century, but it became much more frequently used in the early nineteenth century.
By the late nineteenth century, the term was used less frequently, although it’s yet to entirely die out.