"to pull with sudden energy," 1580s; earlier "to lash, strike as with a whip" (1540s, surviving only in dialect), of uncertain origin, perhaps echoic. Intransitive sense of "make a sudden spasmodic motion" is from c. 1600. Compare Middle English yerkid, an adjective apparently meaning "pulled tight" (early 15c.), which has the form of a past participle. Also compare Middle English ferken "move hastily; drive (something) forward," from Old English fercian "to proceed." Related: Jerked; jerking.
1550s, "stroke of a whip," from jerk (v.1). Sense of "sudden sharp pull or twist" is by 1570s. Meaning "involuntary spasmodic movement of limbs or features" recorded from 1805. As the name of a popular dance, it is attested from 1966.
"tedious and ineffectual person," 1935, American English carnival slang, of uncertain origin. Perhaps from jerkwater "petty, inferior, insignificant" [Barnhart, OED]; alternatively from, or influenced by, verbal phrase jerk off "masturbate" [Rawson]. The lyric in "Big Rock Candy Mountain," sometimes offered as evidence of earlier use, apparently is "Where they hung the Turk [not jerk] that invented work."
A soda-jerk (1915; soda-jerker is from 1883) is so called for the pulling motion required to work the taps.
The SODA-FOUNTAIN CLERK
Consider now the meek and humble soda-fountain clerk,
Who draweth off the moistened air with nimble turn and jerk,
[etc., Bulletin of Pharmacy, August, 1902]
"preserve (meat) by cutting into long thin strips and drying in the sun," 1707, American English, from American Spanish carquear, from charqui (see jerky). Related: Jerked.