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"What Does "Jack Tar" Mean And Where Does It Come From?" Topic

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Ditto Tango 2 119 Jun 2005 5:25 p.m. PST

Just saw John the OFM's question on the RAFM range ( In my little ethinic group, "Jack-a-Tar" refers to people on the west coast of our island of mixed french/indian descent. ( link ) Sometimes used derisively….

But I saw John's question on the Nap naval board, and it's also used as a category in Too Fat lardie's Kiss Me hardy (Jolly jack tar) and I'm wondering where it comes from in the naval respect…

Thanks in advance for any info on this.

Ditto Tango 2 119 Jun 2005 5:28 p.m. PST

Sorry about that, the stupid site of Newfoundland English must have some hidden frames… If interested, click on the J, and "jackatar" is a little ways down.

Repiqueone19 Jun 2005 5:46 p.m. PST

Tim, The word Jack was long used as a word for a man or boy. Combined with Tar (or Tar used alone) meant a sailor. The reference is to the tar used in naval construction and to protect the shrouds, lines, and other rigging. Undoubtedly a sailor could be recognized by his gait, his uncomfortability with shoes, and a dark stain to his calloused hands from handling the lines.


Ditto Tango 2 119 Jun 2005 6:17 p.m. PST

Thanks BJ, rather interesting that. I am so used to the term "jackatar" which is really not quite the same thing, that reading "jacktar" seems rather weird to me.

elsyrsyn19 Jun 2005 6:49 p.m. PST

I seem to recall reading somewhere that sailors (this would be 16th and 17th century I guess) applied tar to their pony tails. Sounds gross, and may be apocryphal, but I guess there wasn't much shampoo on those ships. I assume that, if this is true, it may be part of the origin of "Jolly Jack Tar," with Jack being a common generic term for a man.


astronomican19 Jun 2005 7:04 p.m. PST

Jack was a common name applied to any working man.

Sailors were known as Jack Tars because of the splashes of tar on their clothes. They also applied tar to their thick overcoat to help make it waterproof.

Long hair could get caught in the ship's equipment when working onboard so to stop this from happening sailors would tar their pigtails. Officers were excused from this "hair care". Sailors were still allowed long hair (tied into pigtails and tarred) up until the early-20th century.

Another tidbit:
Because sailors often worked with dirty/tarred rope, their hands would get filthy. Queen Victoria didn't like to see sailors filthy palms when they saluted so the Navy changed it's salute so as to hide the palms. This why the Navy's hand salute is different from the Army's and Air Force's. :-)

altfritz19 Jun 2005 7:30 p.m. PST

I just spent the weekend helping roof my brothers house. I cannot imagine anybody actually putting tar in their hair! :-0!

rmaker19 Jun 2005 7:59 p.m. PST

altfritz, the tar in question is NOT the petroleum derivative we think of, but pine tar (as used on baseball bats). Aka 'naval stores'.

mweaver19 Jun 2005 8:16 p.m. PST

Tar for the Royal Navy and merchant ships was a big export from colonial North Carolina, hence "tar heel" as nickname for someone from North Carolina.

Company D Miniatures19 Jun 2005 9:52 p.m. PST

apparantly the straw hats they wore were also treated with tar.
Having been a sailor myself its bad enough struggling to get your yacht out the mouth of the river Dart ,sling the hook over the side and have a picnic without having to worry about inclement conditions.
However sailing in the U.K. is a bit like standing in a cold shower stuffing banknotes down the lavatory as fast as you can.

Meiczyslaw19 Jun 2005 11:47 p.m. PST

I also heard one story (possibly apocraphyl) that sailors usually went barefoot shipboard — partly because the salt water wore shoe leather out something fierce, and also partly because they didn't grip real well.

So, anyway, some pragmatic souls figured out that tar could be applied to feet, adding a slight protective layer, and making it easier to use your feet to grip as you clambered amongst the shrouds.

fairoaks02420 Jun 2005 12:45 a.m. PST

further to earlier answers:- the reason a sailors uniform has the square cloth piece hanging down over the shoulders was to keep the tar in the pigtail from dirtying the uniform. The royal navy still wear it today. who says the british are hide bound!



astronomican20 Jun 2005 3:53 a.m. PST

The item of clothing you refer to is known as a "blue colour", and it's use is as you have stated.

fairoaks02420 Jun 2005 6:25 a.m. PST

thanks astronomican! is that were 'blue collar worker' comes from as well?



Khazarmac20 Jun 2005 12:25 p.m. PST

fairoaks024–I am not sure where blue collar worker comes from, but I think the opposite, white collar worker, comes from office workers that were able to wear white collars as they wouldn't get dirty (this was when shirts had seperate collars–late 19th early 20th century). The manual workers used to wear a neck scarf and a collarless shirt. It may be that they later wore blue collars to hide the dirt, as collared shirts became popular.

Regarding tarring queues, the British army had queues for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. The army wound them around a piece of wood or leather and they were chalked instead of tarred.

Hacksaw20 Jun 2005 4:51 p.m. PST

The old memory banks dredged up something about a tarred leather cup being called a "jack". Anyone else ever hear of it?

Ditto Tango 2 120 Jun 2005 5:35 p.m. PST

All of this stuff is really new and, as I exlained above, very weird sounding to me but quite interesting.

Thanks to all.

Don't know about the cup thing.

astronomican20 Jun 2005 6:19 p.m. PST

Here's more:

The No.1 uniform for Royal Navy ratings had the trousers folded in 1 of 2 ways. Depending on your leg size, you either had 5 or 7 horizontal folds. The numbers chosen represent the 5 oceans and the 7 seas.

The very same trousers were known as "bell bottoms" as they were very flaired. This was so that when you were scrubing the decks, you could roll the trousers up into a heavy band of material to protect your knees.

I've mentioned the "blue collar" that we RN guys wore. It has 3 parallel lines on it. These represent Nelson's 3 victories–Denmark, The Nile, and Trafalgar.

Hacksaw20 Jun 2005 7:16 p.m. PST

Finally got home and looked it up, the cup is commonly known as a "Black Jack", made of waxed leather and covered with tar or pitch. Oh well, it had "Jack" in the name and was covered with tar, anyway ;-)

Khazarmac21 Jun 2005 11:31 a.m. PST

A leather jack is certainly a term used for a leather drinking cup.

Khazarmac21 Jun 2005 11:35 a.m. PST

Reading these messages makes me think of related sayings and slang. Mention of Jack as a term for a man, reminds me of "Jack of all trades" for a man that can turn his hand to any job; "Jack the lad" bit of an happy go lucky, chancer, sort of thing. Referring to the leather jack or cup, I think the dice game of blackjack came from throwing dice from a leather cup (we used to have a set of blackjack dice and cup when I was a kid).

Khazarmac21 Jun 2005 11:37 a.m. PST

Just thought of another one; car-jacking, where a jolly, nautical fellow in bell bottomed trousers, his hair neatly tarred up, shoves a gun in your face and steals your automobile!

astronomican21 Jun 2005 1:38 p.m. PST

Khazarmac, ROTFLMAO!

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