Most people – normal folks, I imagine – are excited by the size of the Powerball jackpot: It has reached a record $1.5 billion at the time I write this. (I’ve already had to revise it up from $1.4 billion since I began this post.)
But nerd that I am, I am wowed by the word jackpot. To me, its etymology holds the real prize. (But, you know, if you gave me any winning numbers, I probably wouldn’t turn them down or anything.)
As you probably guessed, jackpot is a simple compound, joining jack and pot. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first cites jackpot in an 1881 edition of the Harvard Lampoon. Originally, this jackpot was won not in lottery games but in poker, specifically a version of draw poker known as Jack Pots.
In Jack Pots, players cannot open the betting unless they have a pair of jacks or better. If no one opens, players get a new hand and re-ante, which can accumulate into some large prizes. Hence the figurative jackpots in slots and lottos.
The jack in jackpot, then, refers to the card. This jack, if we again look to the OED, has long named the rank. The dictionary cites jack as “the knave of trumps in the game of all-fours” as early as the 1670s. Among other meanings, a knave was once “a male servant,” “commoner,” or “peasant.” (Apparently, jack eventually trumped knave following confusion between the abbreviation for knave, Kn, and king, K.)
As for pot? Once more according to the OED, a pot has been used in gambling slang for “a large sum of money” so staked or bet since 1823, for “the betting pool” in U.S. cards, especially poker, since 1847.
Now, I spent a lot of time playing Euchre over lunch in high school (and drinks in college). In this game, jacks are top trump and called bowers. The jack of the trump suit is the right bower, the jack of the same color the left bower. I always thought of these bowers in the castle sense, the left and right hazily evoking some sort of turret, I foolishly supposed. But no, this bower is actually from the German Bauer, which is a “farmer” or “peasant” – as we saw, a knave in English, or a jack, as Jack was once a name commonly associated with peasants.
Now that’s what I call hitting the etymological jackpot.