Have you ever wondered why sailors were called ‘Jack Tar’? It’s thought to be because of the tarpaulins they wore. A tarpaulin was a type of canvas which contained tar to render it waterproof. It was used on board ship and could also be made into waterproof garments.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the first known use of the term ‘Jack Tar’ to denote sailors was by George Parker in 1781. ‘Jack’ on its own was already in use to mean ‘a sailor’ and was a term used generically to mean a ‘representative of the common people’ (OED). It could also be employed in conjunction with other words to denote people of a certain type, such as a ‘Jack out of office’, a ‘Jack of both sides’, or a ‘Jack of all trades’. The last of these, according to Jackspeak: the Pusser’s Rum Guide to Royal Navy Slanguage (Caird Library ID PBA4865) meant ‘a sailor who can turn his hand to anything’. The illustration (ID PAF3907) is from the prints and drawings collection, available to view in the Library. Stawell (Acquisitions and Cataloguing Librarian)