The short version, “jack-of-all-trades and master of none,” derogatorily suggests that a “handy-man” lacks any expertise. The full proverb, however, states the opposite where an expert of one trade isn’t necessarily more knowledgeable than one who knows a bit about many. Though the “jack-of-all-trades” idiom has varieties dating back to the 14th century, it’s believed that the second line, “and oftentimes better than a master of one,” is a twentieth-century addition.
From the late 14th century forward, “Jack,” whether in a familiar or contemptuous fashion, indicated a lower-class young man and a catch-all name for a servant or assistant. Over the centuries, “Jack” evolved into a generic term for a common man, like “average Joe” or “John Doe.” The legacy is evident in Every-man Jack, Jack Tar (sailor), Jack-pudding (baffoon), Jack the Ripper, Jack and Jill, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack Be Nimble, Jack Sprat, Little Jack Horner, The House that Jack Built, jack-in-the-box, and jack-o-lantern. We still use the word in occupations like lumberjack and steeplejack.
In the first published mention of William Shakespeare, popular pamphleteer, Robert Greene, derisively called the Bard a Johannes factotum (Johnny do-it-all) in his 1592 booklet, Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit, to dismiss the talents of the actor-turned-playwright.
Below are ten more well-known proverbs and quotes that are often incomplete, misconstrued, or mistranslated.
Great minds think alike.
As it’s often used, this proverb has an air of self-congratulation that the original quote undermines in a qualifying statement of humility: “Great minds think alike and fools seldom differ.” It is thought to date back to the 17th century in Dabridgcourt Belchier’s Hans Beer-Pot, who wrote “good wits doe jumpe” where “jumpe” means “agree with.”
My country, right or wrong!
This is another incomplete quote that misconstrues its original intent. The real quote by Carl Schurz from 1872, isn’t so blindly patriotic as to make one a fool: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” Mr. Schurz was a German revolutionist, American statesman and reformer, and Union Army general in the American Civil War.
Money is the root of all evil.
As the verse from 1 Timothy 6:10 clearly states, it’s not money itself that’s evil, but the love for money that drives people away from virtue and toward greed. The full quote reads, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”
Now is the winter of our discontent…
This is a partial quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III and is often used to signal dark or downtrodden times. The complete lines suggest the contrary: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York. / And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”
When one door closes another opens.
The full quote, attributed to Alexander Graham Bell, warns about the tendency to be blinded by unhappiness and regret. “When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” Ergo, it’s not simply about something lost or gained — it’s about our focus.
Curiosity killed the cat.
Before the 20th century, it wasn’t “curiosity” that killed the cat, it was “care.” “Care” translated as “worry” and meant that an anxious person could worry themselves to death.
The earliest reference to this saying is attributed to British playwright, Ben Jonson, in his 1598 play, Every Man in His Humour: “Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care will kill a cat, up-tails all, and a pox on the hangman.”
Shakespeare used a similar quote in his play, Much Ado About Nothing: “What, courage man! what though care killed a cat, thou hast mettle enough in thee to kill care.”
The proverb remained the same until at least 1898 when E. C. Brewer included the idiom in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. In that same year, the phrase “it is said that once curiosity killed a Thomas cat” appeared in The Galveston Daily News in the U.S. state of Texas. Similarly, “Curiosity can do more things than kill a cat,” was recorded in O. Henry’s early 20th-century short story, Schools and Schools. It again appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s Diff’rent in 1922, and by that time, had transformed into the phrase we know today.
The devil is in the details.
This well-known idiom means that something that appears to be simple will take more time and effort to complete owing to the details. However, the original idiom is “God is in the details,” expressing the idea that whatever one does should be done thoroughly and with attention to the details. The idiom is historically attributed to a number of individuals but is thought to be a translation of “Le bon Dieu est dans le détail” (the good Lord is in the detail) by Gustave Flaubert in the 19th century.
One foul swoop!
The correct phrase, “one fell swoop,” refers to something happening all at once. Sometimes mistaken for “foul,” “fowl”, or “full,” the fossilized word “fell” survives only in this phrase. The Old French term means “fierce” or “deadly” and is best known by its derivative, “felon,” meaning “a wicked person, one who deceives, commits treason, or a felony.”
The phrase was first recorded in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, where it’s used by Macduff on learning of the murder of his wife and children by the king: “All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop?”
The proof is in the pudding.
According to Merriam-Webster, this proverb dates back to at least the 14th century. Variations include “the proof in the pudding” and “the proof of the pudding.” The full saying is, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” “Proof” in this case means “test” and suggests that you must test something to determine whether it’s good or not. Medieval puddings were essentially sausages — boiled or steamed mixtures of minced meat, cereal, spices, and blood stuffed into intestines or stomachs. They could be very good, bad, or possibly fatal if the meat was contaminated and not tested.
Stepping away from the “pudding” context, if one were to say, “The proof is in the car,” it’s difficult to understand what exactly “in the car” is the proof. “The proof of the car is in the driving” makes better sense.
The Green-eyed Monster
Though their origins are often forgotten, idiomatic phrases like “the green-eyed monster” or “Off with his head!” have been borrowed by writers so often, it’s good to be reminded that they come from that Johannes factotum, William Shakespeare. In his play, Othello, the playwright turned the idea of being sick (green) and, combining it with jealousy, created the metaphor that we still use today: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Take that, Robert Greene.
You may also be interested in reading more about Shakespeare’s amazing contribution to the English language, the influence of Native American languages in the North American dialect, or words that you didn’t know were originally Spanish!
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