A recent thread in the Portuguese Language SE are intending to find a Portuguese version for the expression "Jack of all trades, master of none".

The question is:

The original expression could have a positive connotation like:

"He who is good at many things, but not an expert at any"

Or Can we use it in a negative way like:

"Who is skilled at many things, is not skilled at any"

Which one is the right?


2 Answers 2


The Wikipedia page you linked to explains this subtly, but rather well:

When abbreviated as simply 'jack of all trades', it is ambiguous; the user's intention is then dependent on context.

This means that the phrase jack of all trades (without the master of none) can be used in a complimentary or a disparaging fashion. Are you complimenting someone for their wide range of skills? Or pointing out that they don't excel at anything?

The Wikipedia article also says:

The phrase used in its entirety generally describes a person whose knowledge, while covering a number of areas, is superficial in all of them.

This means that, when the master of none caveat is added, the expression is generally regarded as mild insult, focusing on the person's lack of excellence rather than on the upside of an individual's modest proficiency in a broad range of areas.

If you are looking for a complementary idiom for the entire 7-word phrase, I think you need something slightly negative to capture the full intent.


I would think that the phrase, even when shortened, is an insult in any case. Why should an attentive communicator risk being misunderstood as insulting when there are hundreds of ways to address the topic. (For example, a bank president has worked their way up from teller, to a manager, to VP, to the president. Career advancement is a learning process and gaining experience. The President can surely perform as a teller, but the phrase is rarely applied to the banking industry (or other white-collar industries) due to a false status of prestige. In today's economy, with discrimination (especially age and against white males over 50) there are few professionals who have not moved their career forward, backward, and sideways just to keep food on the table. But though it is an insult, I would feel that the insult is actually a request for clarification to define what you prefer to do vs. can do.

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