Throughout New England, the term Jake is used to bestow praise and a high level of respect to a good firefighter. That is not the case everywhere. Being called a Jake in Detroit, is an insult, synonymous with being lazy or a bad firefighter. How did the same term get such drastically different meanings over time? I can only speculate.
The origin of the word used in the positive seems to be in dispute. One version dates back to the days when the most prized possession of early Americas was a bed. The beds were fastened together using a key shaped like a J. After the bed was assembly the key was misplaced or put away. When a fire occurred people often called for the J key that firemen carried to save their bed. Over time the term Jake – “ J-Key” grew to mean a good fireman, who of course was a hero for saving a family’s most valuable item.
Another version comes from early 20th century Boston. Again it is derived from the term J-Key only this key was part of the fire alarm pull boxes. In WWI the Army used J-Series portable telegraphs systems to communicate. These systems’ keys were commonly called J-Keys. When fire alarm boxes were put in place in Boston they contained a similar telegraph tapper (key) firefighter could use to communicated back to headquarters. As veterans returned from the war they joined the fire service and brought the term J-Key with them. Being a good Jake, most likely meant you were cool under pressure and able to send clear Morse code.
I can only imagine how Detroit picked up the term, giving it negative connotations. Perhaps it stemmed from a rivalry between old time Detroit firefighters and east coast firefighters. Back then, firefighters would gathered compete for titles such as Fastest Hose Coupler of America. I envision the Detroit guys hearing the New Englanders calling each other Jakes (in the good way). Being naturally competitive, as most firefighters are, it wouldn’t take much for a Detroiter to twist the term into a negative, as a form of friendly rivalry. After the competition they took the term home, with the negative connotations attached. Of course, this is just a theory…. or perhaps an overactive imagination.
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