Susan, my first thought was that the expression was invented in the old West by codgers with flour in their saddlebags sitting around the campfire. Well, scratch that. The word was in use in merry old England in the early 1600s and it appeared in print in Shakespeare’s ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre’ (act 2, scene 1) [somehow Shakespeare and flapjacks seem incongruous!] when the first fisherman says to Pericles:
“. . . Come, thou shalt go home, and / we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for / fasting-days, and moreo’er puddings and flap-jacks, / and thou shalt be welcome
New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary
FLAPJACK noun, early 17th century [from ‘flap’ verb and ‘Jack’ noun]: a flat cake or pancake
By the early 17th century, the verb FLAP had its usual meaning of ‘cause to swing or sway about, flutter, flop (frequently making a noise).’ So ‘flap’ comes from the process of flipping the pancake in the pan or on a griddle or whatever they used back in those days. And by the mid-19th century one of the meanings of flap was specifically to ‘toss (especially a pancake) smartly.’
JACK (capitalized) “[pet-form of the male forename John, perhaps through diminished ‘Jankin’; the resemblance to French ‘Jacques’ (from Proto-Romance from Latin ‘Jacobus’ Jacob) is unexplained].”
By about 1400 JACK (capitalized) had come to mean ‘( figure of ) a (male) representative of the common people, (a name for) an ordinary man’ [[the common ‘Joe’ of today]].
‘Jack’ later took on several shades of man-related meanings on the same theme, including: a lad, a chap, an ill-mannered man, a knave, a form of address to an unknown person (colloquially originating in U.S.), a sailor, an odd-job man, a laborer, a serving-man.
‘Jack’ (later becoming lower case), in addition to its original meaning of man [‘Go fro the window, Jakke fool,’ she said from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ (1387-1400) and “I’m Alright, Jack” (1960 film) – which Eric Partridge claims came from “Fuck you. I’m alright, Jack” circa 1880, has found its way into hundreds of English words with Standard English meanings beyond just those few excerpted from the OED above, as well as many slang expression.
I counted 76 Standard English words beginning in ‘jack’ in my Random House Unabridged. I also found 46 Standard English words ending in ‘jack.’ And I found over 200 slang words and phrases beginning with ‘jack’ in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang. From lumberjack, to jackpot, to jackass, to jackshit, to crackerjack, to jack-in-the-box, to highjack, ‘jack’ has taken on a variety of meanings and the connection to the original ‘Jack’ has been lost in some cases.
The ‘jack’ in ‘flapjack,’ according to the OED entry above does originally derive from the capitalized male name ‘Jack,’ but exactly how we went from that to the griddlecake was never explained by them or in any of the sources I checked. Incidentally, ‘applejack,’ the U.S. apple brandy derives from the male name ‘Jack’ also [according to the OED].
Could it be that the word ‘flapjack’ came from the person making them, the ‘flapjack(er)’ as in the person ‘lumberjack’(‘steeplejack’)? Or maybe the pancake itself came from the ‘jack,’ meaning something ‘small’ (small cake) as in the children’s game of ‘jacks’ (derived from picking up small stones called ‘jacks’), the small drive shaft of a car, the ‘jackshaft,’ and the small weighted leather weapon the ‘blackjack’ – perhaps only the Shadow knows for sure!
Ken G – March 18, 2003
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
R.R., I discussed this question previously under ‘flapjack’ and the Word Detective discussion below also covers the ground pretty well.
The origin of the components of the British ‘flapjack’ are fairly straightforward. The ‘flap’ part was no problem, and after examining some 200 words containing ‘Jack,’ many of which exhibited no detectable logic in that choice (e.g. jackpot, jackknife, applejack, hijack), it doesn’t appear to me that ‘Jack’ is a problem here either. However, there are a few interesting points that I would like to mention.
‘Flap-jack’ was the slang expression for the more genteel ‘pancake’ (circa 1430) and first appeared in print in the early 1600s and seems to have been an expression of the common folk. One of its first appearances was in Shakespeare’s ‘Pericles, Prince of Tyre’ (act 2, scene 1) when the first fisherman says to Pericles: “. . . Come, thou shalt go home, and / we’ll have flesh for holidays, fish for / fasting-days, and moreo’er puddings and FLAP-JACKS, / and thou shalt be welcome.” I somehow don’t visualize Pericles answering, “Aye, I’m definitely up for some flap-jacks,” but I could be wrong. John Taylor, a British poet (also known as the ‘Water Poet’) was a professional boatman who ferried people on the Thames and chronicled life in 17th century England. In a 1620 work he has one character explaining what a flapjack is, again indicating that was a recent invention probably not familiar to some segments of society. <“Bij, A FLAP~JACK, which in our translation is call’d a Pancake.”—‘Jack-a-Lent’>.
Incidentally, the ‘Jack-a-Lent’ that Taylor used for the title of his above work is a) a small stuffed puppet set up to be pelted for fun in Lent or b) a not-too-swift person. The beginning of the fasting in Lent, as mentioned above, is celebrated on Pancake Day / Pancake Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday) and dates back to at least the early 15th century. On this day, feasts of pancakes (batter fried in fat) were traditionally served. The ingredients were eggs, symbols of creation, flour for the staff of life, salt for the wholesomeness, and milk for purity. And, on the practical side, the tradition of pancakes also served to get rid of the supplies of fat, butter and eggs that were forbidden during Lent.
After researching the origin of the use of the word ‘flapjack’ in the colonies, it is not entirely clear to me that the word ever migrated over from Britain and I think that it is entirely possible that it developed independently here. It is also not clear how widespread the use of the word ‘flapjack’ ever was in England, although it definitely had some early usage in the 1600s and again gained popularity in the mid 20th century (as a biscuit usually containing rolled oats, syrup, etc.). In sifting through various sources on life (food, clothing, etc.) in Britain in the 1700 and 1800s, I found no evidence of the use of the word ‘flapjacks’ being used for ‘pancakes,’ although that doesn’t necessarily prove it wasn’t.
In the colonies, early American pancakes where usually made of cornmeal or ‘parched corn’ (lightly toasted/roasted) – ingredients unknown in the British pancake – and were fried versions of the early corn breads (~1750). The earliest was the ‘Indian cake’ (1607), made of parched corn, water, and salt, and also called a ‘no cake’ (1634, from Narragansett ‘nokehick,’ ‘it is soft,’ the soft batter being thrown and shaped from one hand to the other). ‘No cake’ had become ‘hoe cake’ (or ‘hoecake’) by 1745, perhaps a mispronunciation of ‘no cake’ or perhaps because it was sometimes cooked on a hoe blade. If cooked in the ashes of a fire, the parched cornmeal, water, and salt cake was also called an ‘ashcake or ‘ashpone’ (1810).
Incidentally, ‘pone’ was staple of the early American colonies from New England southward to Virginia and was originally a bread made by Native Americans from flat cakes of cornmeal dough baked in ashes. Pone (derived from the Indian word for ‘roasted’ or ‘baked’) is one of several Virginia Algonquian words (including ‘hominy’ and ‘tomahawk’) borrowed into the English of the Atlantic seaboard. The word ‘pone,’ usually in the compound ‘cornpone,’ is now used mainly in the South, where it means cakes of cornbread baked on a griddle or in hot ashes as the Native Americans originally cooked it.
By ~1735 people in the colonies were eating the very popular ‘Johnny cake’ (or johnnycake) made with cornmeal, salt, sugar, and boiling water. It’s name is thought to come from ‘joniken,’ an Indian dish of flat, thin cornmeal cakes fried in grease, but the name could be a corruption of ‘Shawnee cake’ or even ‘journey cake,’ since travelers carried them on long trips. Johnny cakes were so popular in New England that New England was called ‘the land of Johnny cake’ before the Civil War and a ‘johnny cake’ had became American slang for a New Englander. Both the earlier, simple, hoecakes and the more elaborate Johnny cakes were sometimes called ‘pancakes,’ but this name did not start replacing all the others until the 1870s. Another of my speculations is that the ‘Johnny’ in ‘Johnny cake’ perhaps became the ‘Jack’ in the later ‘flapjack,’ ‘Jack’ being a common nickname for John. Not surprisingly, if my theory is correct, the word ‘flapjacks’ was nonexistent (at least in print) in the U.S. until ~1825.
Meanwhile, by the 1740s Dutch-style ‘buckwheat cakes’ had come to the colonies – they were America’s first wheat pancakes. By 1796 we were calling our cornmeal and wheat pancakes SLAPJACKS – some 30 years before the appearance of the word ‘flapjack’ (at least in print) in the U.S. The name ‘slapjack’ is said to derive from the fact that they were ‘slapped’ into shape and/or slapped into a skillet. And in the early 1800s FLAPCAKE came on the scene and finally FLAPJACK itself appeared in print on this side of the Atlantic in an 1825 novel (see below).
Other popular names for pancakes that originated in the U.S. in the 17th- 19th centuries were ‘hotcakes’ (circa 1680), ‘griddlecakes’ (circa 1780), ‘flannel cakes’ (circa 1790, originally lumber camp term named after the shirts the lumberjacks commonly wore), and ‘battercakes’ (circa 1825).
So, from the above, it seems not unlikely that the word ‘flapjack’ may have evolved independently on this side of the Atlantic. We don’t know how widely the word ‘flapjack’ was actually used in 17th–19th century England (a distinct possibility is, hardly at all), nor whether it makes sense that the concept of the wheat-based British pancake (considering that wheat was a fairly scarce commodity over here) would have necessarily been associated with the corn-based Indian cakes, hoe cakes and the popular ‘Johnny cake’ of the colonies. In addition, the fact that ‘flapjack’ was preceded by ‘slapjack’ (and in all likelihood ‘flapcake’) in the U.S. is, I think, indicative of an evolutionary development which suggests that the term may well have been homegrown.
Note: hoecake, johnnycake, flapcake, slapjack, and flannel cakes are American regionalism that are still current
<circa 1600 “My Mother . . . could have taught thee how to a made butters and FLAP~JACKS.”—‘ The Blind-Beggar of Bednal-Green’ (`1881) by John Day (dramatist), v. page 114>
<1641 “FLAPJACKS, and Pan-puddings.”—‘Joviall Crew’ by Brome, II. Works 1873, by Brome, III, page 376>
<1825 “Like a FLAP-JACK in a fryin' pan.”—‘Brother Jonathan’ by J. Neal, I. page 272>
<1842 “We had a splendid breakfast of FLAPJACKS, or SLAPJACKS, and whortleberries.”—‘Passages from the American Note-books’ (1883) by N. Hawthorne, page 303>
(I Hear America Talking by Flexner, Everyday Life in the 1800s by McCutcheon, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Oxford English Dictionary, Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Facts on File Dictionary of American Regionalisms, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang)
Ken G –December 10, 2004
Reply from Ken Greenwald (Fort Collins, CO - U.S.A.)
Word Detective (http://www.worddective.com
Mmm, pancakes, as Homer Simpson would say. You can keep your wheel, your airplane and your cell phone (please). The truly brilliant invention, in my humble opinion, was the idea of serving heavy-duty dessert for breakfast. After all, nothing jump-starts your day like a massive jolt of pure sugar, right? And the double-whammy scenario of pouring syrup over fried cake is a home run blasted out of the stodgy ballpark of everything we know about mammalian metabolism, let alone human nutrition. Well done, gang. Put it together with eggs and bacon and it's a miracle anybody in this country lives to see lunch.
Pancakes are actually an ancient invention, dating back to at least the fourth century B.C. in China, and the cuisines of almost all cultures include some form of the pancake. The pancake was popularized in Europe as a dish traditionally served on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent in the Christian calendar. Since goodies such as fat, eggs and dairy products were forbidden during Lent, pancakes proved a good way to empty the larder in one fell swoop, and this "last chance pig-out day" was also known as "Pancake Tuesday" (or "Fat Tuesday," known in New Orleans as "Mardi Gras"). Surprisingly, pancakes have been popular as a breakfast staple in the U.S. only since the 1920s, shortly after "Crepes Suzette," a French dessert based on very thin pancakes, first appeared in New York City hotels.
Though many of us probably associate "flapjack" with old cowboy movies, the term actually first appeared in Britain way back around 1600. The "flap" in "flapjack" is an obsolete sense of the verb "to flap" meaning "to toss with a sharp movement, to flip," as one flips a pancake halfway through cooking.
The "jack" part of the word is a bit hazier. "Jack" is, of course, a familiar form of the name "John" (probably drawn from the French equivalent, "Jacques"), and has long been used as a name for a wide variety of unrelated things, from the knaves in a deck of cards to the "jack" used to change a car tire. The "jack" in flapjack is almost certainly another case of "jack" used to mean simply "thing," making "flapjack" add up to "thing that is flipped."
Take Our Word For It (http://www.takeourword.com
When I went to a pancake house called Flapjack's, it occurred to me to wonder about that word. Webster's 10th Collegiate Dictionary gives no etymology, but dates the word from about 1600. My only hunch is that the flap- part could be a variant of flip. As to the jack part, there are many English terms - compound words - with jack, one sense of which is a person (as in every man jack) and another sense of which might be fish because there were some half dozen fish names compounded with jack - neither of which seems likely to have to do with flapjack.
Or it might be that the word is the result of folk etymology (the assimilation of a foreign or obsolete word to known word elements in an effort to make sense out of it, an example being when I heard a waitress call in an order for a "Julie Ann salad")..
We can't find a connection to flip but that may not be necessary. One meaning of to flap which dates from the 1300s is "to toss with a smart movement" or, in other words, "to flip". Jack is a little more problematic. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 39 different meanings for jack with hundreds of compound expressions like those you mention, Richard, but none of them seem especially relevant to the jack in flapjack. It could be their small size. One use of jack is to designate something smaller than normal, as in the "jack" used in the game of lawn bowls.
The word flapjack has been with us since around 1600 though it has been applied to a number of different foods. While it originally meant "a pancake", flapjack can also mean an apple turnover (a.k.a an "apple-jack") and, in parts of England, a cookie made with rolled oats and syrup. In the first half of the 20th century it was used to mean "compact case for face powder"; this is similar to using pancake to refer to face make-up (clearly referring to the flat pad used to apply the make-up in both cases). However, we do find this quotation from 1941 rather amusing: "Slowly opening her handbag and taking out her flapjack."
Reply from Leighton Harris (Cambridge - England)