Words: Jackpot

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The Independent Online

WITH half the nation down with Lottery fever, the jackpot has become the talisman of our times. For dedicated punters it is the Holy Grail, the Eternal City and the philosopher's stone rolled into one. So it's salutary to note that 80 years ago, when the word was only three or four decades old, it was already being used as a synonym for trouble.

Jackson and Hellyer's Vocabulary of Criminal Slang of 1914, cited in the OED, defines jackpot as "a dilemma, a difficult strait, a retribution, trouble, an arrest". Back in 1881 a periodical called the Harvard Lampoon declared that "s are often a snake in the grass".

The Harvard reference was to poker, then a new craze in America, and the jack was what Nancy Mitford would have called the knave - the humblest court card. In one version of the game the preliminary stakes going into the pool (or pot) kept on being doubled till someone drew a pair of jacks or better, at which the bidding proper began and the pot might grow temptingly large, encouraging rash overbidding and eventual mortification. I could find no explanation for Jackson and Hellyer's criminals (Webster has "a tight spot"), but one can imagine that the jackpot was a dream haul, and that the "difficult strait" was a question of measuring the prize against the risks involved in stealing it, the "retribution" being the price of failure. The Australian syndicate that planned to scoop yesterday's rollover Lottery jackpot may have been thinking along similar lines.

The playing-card character was a palace servant. In the Middle Ages a Jack was any common man, as he still is in expressions like "every man Jack", or as a form of address when the name isn't known ("Jimma" among some Scotsmen). In the Beefsteak they call the club servants Charles for the same reason.