The Many Uses of John

By Maeve Maddox

Although male names like Aiden, Jayden, and Santiago lead in popularity among various ethnic and social groups in the U.S., the name John comes only after James as the most popular in the total population according to 1990 census figures.

The long-standing popularity of John has spawned numerous expressions in English, not all of them likely to please bearers of the name.

Because the name is so common, it has served as a generic appellation for any man, rather like Mac, Jack, and Joe, as in Hey, Mac! Got a light?, Every man jack of them (meaning every single man), and G.I. Joe (any man serving in the military).

In the days of the great English manors (think, Downton Abbey), “John” or “John Thomas” was used to refer to a man of the servant class such as a footman, butler, or waiter. In time, “John Thomas” became a euphemism for penis. Another word for the same male body part is “Johnson.”

An anglicized version of French gendarme gave “johndarm” or “john,” a slang word for a policeman.

“John Doe” originated in English law as a fictitious name to describe one of the people in person a certain type of litigation. The name has come to be used to refer to an ordinary or typical citizen. A 1941 Frank Capra movie starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, Meet John Doe, focuses on the suffering of homeless and unemployed U.S. citizens.

Viewers of police dramas know that “John Doe” is often used to refer to a corpse whose identity is unknown. A female victim is called a “Jane Doe.”

The word john to refer to a W.C. or toilet may derive from the name of its inventor, Sir John Harington/Harrington (1561-1612), a member of Queen Elizabeth I’s court.

The use of john to refer to a prostitute’s client may have something to do with one of the meanings of “John Thomas.”

The word john also occurs in a few noun compounds.

A demijohn is a large bottle usually encased in wicker, like a bottle of Chianti, only much bigger. The wicker casing has one or two handles to make the bottle easier to carry.

A John boat is a small, flat-bottomed boat used on inland waterways in the U.S. It is also spelled jon boat.

A johnny cake in the U.S. is a cake made of cornmeal and toasted before a fire. In Australia, a johnny cake is made of wheat meal and baked on the ashes or fried in a pan.

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13 Responses to “The Many Uses of John”

  • Dale A. Wood

    Johnny-come-lately ??

  • Dale A. Wood

    As quickly as you can say “Jack Robinson”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In Great Britain: “John Bull” is the typical Englishman, just as “John Smith” is the typical American, or
    Is “John Bull” the Englsih equivalent of “Uncle Sam”?

  • Dale A. Wood

    A man of unknown name might be called “Johnny Johnson”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    A shameful name from the past in the United States:
    “John Crow” or “Jack Crow”.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I dislike the piling up of attributive adjectives – many of which aren’t really adjectives – before nouns. Quoting:
    A 1941 Frank Capra movie starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, “Meet John Doe”, focuses on the suffering of homeless and unemployed U.S. citizens.
    Rewrite this with prepositional phrases:
    A movie by Frank Capra from 1941 starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, “Meet John Doe”, focuses on the suffering of homeless and unemployed U.S. citizens. OR
    A movie starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, “Meet John Doe” (1941), by Frank Capra, focuses on the suffering of homeless and unemployed U.S. citizens.

    My phrase for people who can’t or won’t use prepositional phrases is that they must have been INOCULATED against them.
    D.A.W.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Dale,
    The expression was “Jim Crow.”

    Why not just comment on the content of my posts and leave the writing style to me?

  • Curtis

    Dale, I think you just heard the sound of one hand clapping.

  • Mel

    Then there’s the fish, John Dory, possibly named for a 1600s child ballad of the same name…

  • Roberta B.

    Way to go, Maeve! BTW, nice to see your posts, again. I’ve tried a few times to leave such comments, but for some reason they haven’t stuck or have shown up days later only to disappear again. So, I’ve almost given up trying to post. We’ll see if this one stays…..

    As I’ve said before, and I’ll say it again – Dale A. Wood, YOU’RE TEDIOUS AND ANNOYING! Please quit trying monopolize the comments and overwhelm the sharing of ideas. Don’t you think one comment (per day?) is enough? Go start your own blog! If nothing else, please get a clue and learn some etiquette. Thanking you in advance to shut up!

  • venqax

    Yes, DAW, it was Jim Crow, as Maeve points out. Not that John and Jack may not have been just as shameful in their own rights. I believe this was a different Jim from the one who cracked corn, but I don’t care.

  • Brenda

    In D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, “John Thomas” was the name Mellors, the gamekeeper, gave to his penis. He referred to his lover Constance Chatterley’s vagina as “Lady Jane.” Isn’t this the origin of the use of John Thomas for a penis? In other words the name wasn’t simply adopted over time, as the article above states.

  • Maeve Maddox

    Brenda,
    I would guess the term was in use long before it appeared in print. The earliest OED citation is dated 50 years earlier than LCL.

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