by Ruth Minshull
Nowadays there seems to be a competition going on for the weirdest names parents can give a baby. Kasha, Jada, Kylene, Rain, Kildear and Carmaloo. I never know whether folks are talking about a boy, a girl, a deadly new disease or the latest rock band.
Names used to be simpler. There was Jane, Marylou, Carolyn, David, George, Mergatroyd (What?) and John.
Especially John. For some reason, there’s always been a universal fondness for that name. I’m certain it’s the all-time most popular.
Not only is it a common given name in English, it is also used in other languages. There is Johan (German), Jon, Joannes, Johannes (both French); Johannes is also Greek. The Hebrew have Yohanen, and the Spanish-speaking have Juan.
If you’re a male on this planet, sooner or later you could be called a john. For one thing, the word is used to mean just fellow or guy. A johnny can refer to a young man of fashion, as in stage-door johnny. In Australia it can mean cop. On the tawdry side, it’s also used to describe a toilet as well as the customer of a prostitute.
We find the name in the bible. John was one of the twelve apostles and, apparently, wrote The Gospel According to St. John. And there was John the Baptist.
There are an incredible number of combinations such as john-a-stiles, john-a-nokes and john doe, each of which means a party to a legal proceedings whose true name is unknown.
The ubiquitous john doe is also used more broadly to mean an anonymous or undistinguished man. Devotees of crime fiction, of course, are more likely to think of a john doe as an unidentified corpse.
John, in many forms, describes the everyday guy. In England John Bull means a typical average Englishman. Here we refer to John Citizen, John Q. Citizen or, more frequently, to John Q. Public–to denote members of the community.
John Chinaman is supposed to mean the Chinese nation personified; it’s usually taken to be offensive. (In fact, I doubt that the expression is still in use.)
Johnny crapeau means the French people or a Frenchman. It’s not as derogatory as one might think. Crapaud means toad, and refers to the French reputation for eating frogs.
Somebody ran out of ideas when naming fish. There is john brown, john dory, john a. gindle, john mariggle, johnny darter, and johnny verde. And there are at least four birds: john down (a sea bird), john crow (a turkey buzzard), johnny rook (a hawk on the Faulkland Islands) and john to-whit.
Not to be outdone by the birds and the fish, there are several plants that have borrowed the name: johnny jump as well as johnny-jump-up, johnny smokers, john’s wort. And lastly, my favorite, john-go-to-bed-at-noon (a plant, rather than an all-night party-goer).
I don’t know why we need two names for signatures, but we have john hancock (who was the first man to sign the Declaration of Independence) and john henry, the legendary Negro in American folklore.
Many kinds of people are johns of some sort. John law is a policeman and johnny raw is a greenhorn. Johnny reb was a Confederate soldier in the Civil War. John trot is a dull person, a boor. The British say john-a-dreams to describe an impractical fellow.
The word is also used for a variety of objects. There’s a johnny collar, a small dress collar. Johnnycake for cornbread. Johnny is another name for the short hospital gown worn by patients. A johnboat is a narrow flatbottom craft propelled by a pole or paddle. And, of course, john barleycorn is liquor.
Why was the name used so often? I doubt that many of the names originated with professional wordsmiths. More likely they were cooked up right where they were used by a, well, johnny-on-the-spot, who apparently was your basic johnny one-note. Anyway, he was there, and not a johnny-come-lately.
As many uses as there are of the word john, they don’t come close to the number of meanings and variations of the word Jack, the nickname for John.
It’s used generically to denote a common person (every man jack), pal or buddy. (What are you in for, Jack?)
A jack-tar is a sailor. In Australia a jack is a policeman. Of course, there’s a lumberjack, a jackknife and the coveted jackpot. We also have applejack, jack-o-lantern (which is not only a carved pumpkin, but the name of a mushroom) and the game of jacks.
A jack can refer to a fourth of a pint or a half-pint. (Why the same word for two sizes I don’t know, unless the namers had downed so much of the contents that the distinctions became fuzzy.)
Further, a jack can refer to a small flag showing nationality, flown by a ship–usually on a jack staff. There’s a jacklight used by jacklighters for hunting or fishing at night (called jacking). A jack (also jack box) can be a receptacle used for connecting electrical circuits, a terminal for telephone circuits. In fact, there are a number of mechanisms with that name. One of the best known is the device we use to lift the car when we change a tire. There are countless other mechanical contrivances including the familiar jackhammer, jack chain (for moving logs). A jack-in-the-box is not only a child’s toy, it’s an obsolete term for sharpie or cheat as well as certain mechanical contrivances; it is also a term for a burglar’s tool used for opening doors or safes. There is also a jackscrew and jackshaft.
The Australians have jackshay which is a bushman’s quart pot generally used for boiling water.
There’s a jack saddle. And jack wax, a chewy confection made by pouring boiling maple syrup over snow.
There are numerous nautical terms: jackrod, jackstay, jackrope, jack staff and jack yard (a spar).
Jack is often used to describe a smaller version of something. There’s a jack rafter, which is a short rafter. A jack timber is shorter than the others. A jack truss is a minor truss. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a bigger thing. A jack spool is a large wooden spool on which is wound woolen yarn for dyeing or warping.
Jackstraw has multiple meanings. It’s a child’s game where the player tries to pick a straw (or strip of bone or wood) from a pile without disturbing the rest. It’s also the name of several small European birds. At one time it was used to describe a man without worth. Conversely, Jack is a slang term for money.
There’s a jackboot (military boot). There’s a sled called a jack jumper, which is also what you call the chap who rides it. A jack ladder may be found on a ship or at the sawmill (where it means the same thing as a jack chain).
In the food line, there is a jack cheese. On the other hand, a jack horner pie is not actually edible, but a container from which party favors are taken).
There are several fishes called jack (pike, pickerel, walleyed pike) or just a young male fish. There’s also crevalle jack, jack mackerel and amberjack. While we’re under water, there’s the jacknife clam.
There are a number of birds that share the name, such as jackdaw, jacksnipe jack crow, jack curlew, jack-in-a-bottle and jackbird.
We’re all familiar with the jackrabbit.
Jack bean, is a plant while jackfruit is an East Indian tree, as is jack-in-a-box. (That’s about the fifth meaning for that combo.) Other trees include the jack pine and the jack oak. And there’s the delightful jack-by-the-hedge, a name for garlic mustard. There is also the plant, jack-in-the pulpit, and another plant called jack-in-the-green. (This later phrase also refers to a man enclosed in a conical framework covered with leaves and boughs to take a prominent part in the May Day games of English chimney sweeps.) And who couldn’t like the jack-over-the-ground, a ground ivy?
A jackanapes can refer to a pert or mischievous child, an impertinent or conceited fellow (and also to a monkey). A jackboy is an archaic term for a lad (such as a stable hand) who does menial work. There’s also a jackman who can be either a textile worker or a shoe repairer. Jackeroo is an Australian term for a greenhand working as an apprentice on a sheep ranch. And we have that handy fellow, the jack-of-all-trades.
Among the bad guys is the jackroller, a scoundrel who robs a drunken or sleeping person. Not surprisingly, such a theft is called jackrolling.
The word was often used as a suffix instead of man, as in lumberjack, steeplejack.
Our old friend jack frost is the personification of chilly weather.
A political commentator could find this word quite useful in describing the jack-in-office (an insolent person in authority) who might be a jack-a-lent (a simple or insignificant chap), a jack-fool, a jack-pudding (a buffoon or clown) or a jack-a-dandy (a foppish impertinent fellow).
Then there’s the versatile jackleg (an untrained person, an amateur, as well as an unscrupulous person)–and it’s a shorter word than politician.
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© 2009 by Ruth Minshull