This word has such a nice, crispy, crunchy sound to it – it seems made to be followed by box, but, alas, the candied popcorn and peanut mix named Cracker Jack is now sold in bags. But this word predates the confection, though possibly not by all that much. Its approbative sense of “exceptionally skillful person” or “especially splendid thing” comes from the late 19th century, and seems to derive from a sense of the word cracker, as related to cracking as in cracking good and to crack as in a crack team, a crack shot, and so on, which in turn derives from the version of the noun crack that refers to a thing that’s all it’s cracked up to be, which comes from the sense of the verb crack meaning “boast,” which appears to come from the original sense “make a loud, sharp noise,” which has carried its onomatopoeia from the mists of the distant past. No doubt the similar word corker has had some mutual reinforcement effect with cracker too.
But, ironically, most senses of cracker applied to people are not especially positive. It has since the 18th century been a term of contempt for the “poor white trash” of Georgia and Florida, possibly from corncracker but possibly from the imputed boastfulness of the people of those parts at the time. It has more recently been a term of abuse for white people, a new version of honky. This sense is reputed to come from whip-cracker, i.e., slave-driver, but it could also originally have come from the term of abuse for poor whites of Georgia and Florida, who were least likely of those in their parts to have been slave-owners. Alas, its colloquial origins mean that there is not as much written record as we would like for tracing it. And in any event, if those using it now intend it to refer to a whip-cracker, then it does. But! None of this seems to relate to crackerjack at all directly!
We are left with the jack part, which is prima facie easier to deal with: it’s a generic term for a male, as in I’m all right, Jack, every man jack, swearing-Jack, Jack-o’-lantern, and a really quite large number of others. It’s the quintessential arms-akimbo word, found in such odd phrases as jack squat (another less polite word is more often used rather than squat). There’s far more about it to taste than I could possibly fit in here. Take tomorrow to think about all the echoes jack brings (including other jacks, be they audio, car, jumping, or the children’s game). And all this Jack from the name Jacques, the French equivalent of James (both of them come ultimately from Yakub, more closely represented in English by Jacob), though Jack is in English a nickname for John…!
So crackerjack may sound direct but traces back by a quite anfractuous track. And the mouthfeel is crisp and catchy, but the flavours are more packed than in a carafe of cognac or a flute of Krug. Bite in and savour… this word is an exceptionally splendid thing.