What Does Jack of All Trades, Master of None Mean?

Jack of All Trades Meaning

Definition: A person who is good at a wide variety of things, but who isn’t great at any one thing.  

This expression has a negative connotation and is used specifically to describe people, not objects. Sometimes an abbreviated form of this expression is used, jack of all trades, which can have either a negative or a positive connotation.

Origin of Jack of All Trades 

The abbreviated form of this expression, jack of all trades, was in use as early as the 1600s. The name Jack may have been chosen because of how common it was. Trade is another word for skill. Therefore, jack of all trades was another way to say a man with many skills.

The full expression developed later, in the 1700s. Many languages around the world have an expression with a similar meaning, of a person who knows a little bit about everything but doesn’t know a lot about anything. The English version may have borrowed the idea from one of these other languages.

Examples

jack of all trades synonymThe dialogue below shows two women using the idiom while learning how to drive.

Mila: I finally feel as if I’m understanding all this driving stuff! You’re a good teacher!

Betty: Thanks! I should be. I used to teach driving professionally.

Mila: Wow! You’ve had so many different jobs. You’re really are a jack of all trades!

Betty: Yeah, a jack of all trades, but master of none, I’m afraid. I changed jobs so often that I never really became an expert at anything. I get bored too easily.

Mila: Don’t say that! I think you’ve mastered many skills!

what is a jack of all tradesThis dialogue shows the idiom used by one roommate who is angry at another roommate.

John: I see your bike tire is flat. I can fix that for you.

Amanda: No, that’s okay. I’ll fix it myself later.

John: There’s no reason not to do it now. I’m pretty good at fixing bikes. It’s one of my many skills.

Amanda: I know. You’re a jack of all trades, but master of none.

John: Hey! I’m just trying to help.

Amanda: I know. I’m sorry, but I prefer to do things myself, and you just keep pushing.

More Examples

In this excerpt from an article about a baseball pitcher, the idiom is used to explain that he has a wide variety of skills for pitching but is not an expert in any one of those skills.

  • Yet in the perfect symbolism of the doubts that have surrounded Roark, the Nats sent him to the bullpen in 2015. There, he became a squandered jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none as a utility pitcher. Washington Post

The second excerpt uses the idiom in the context of whether or not a parent should teach his child two languages at the risk of having her not be truly fluent in either.

  • My daughter doesn’t seem able to tell one language from another and mixes words from different tongues. She knows many Cantonese and English words, but people who understand only one of the languages often have trouble understanding her. I can’t help but wonder, will my daughter become a jack of all trades, but a master of none? –Wall Street Journal

Summary

Jack of all trades, master of none is a negative term to call someone who does not have a clear primary skill but has multiple areas in which he or she holds some knowledge.