Where to even begin?
He’s the most enduring of boys’ names, worn by saints, kings, philosophers, scientists, artists, athletes, and accomplished men from every field of endeavor.
Thanks to KO for suggesting John as our Baby Name of the Day.
He’s been around forever. The original Hebrew name was Yochanan or Yehanan, meaning “God is gracious” – an auspicious meaning. Two New Testament figures made the name a powerhouse. John the Baptist is considered a prophet in Christianity and Islam; among other feats, he is responsible for baptizing Jesus himself. He met his death at the hands of King Herod. John criticized Herod’s incestuous marriage; Herod had John beheaded. He’s been a martyr and important saint ever since.
The second John was the brother of James, and the only apostle to live a long life – which is why he’s the one credited with penning so many books of the New Testament.
While this is a vast oversimplification, his evolution looks something like this:
- In Biblical Greek, Yochanan became Ioannes.
- He picked up an h in Latin – Iohannes.
- Iohannes gave rise to many forms as Latin names were adapted to fit the vernacular.
- Jehan was the medieval French, and was also heard in English.
- Jehan, like so many names, probably came to England with the Norman invaders.
- The I-to-J switch wasn’t instant, and forms like Iohn and Iohne are recorded in medieval English, but as with James, the tide was turning towards J.
- Another common medieval English form of Iohannes was Hann or Han. Shades of the German Hans, though the first thing I think of is Han Solo.
But somehow, instead of Hann, Jehan and Iohn mellowed into John. And John caught on – eventually.
Giovanni was solidly established in Italy much earlier, contributing to the nearly two dozen popes named John from the sixth century onwards. He wasn’t a big hit in English until later in the game. The future King John of England was probably called Johan at court – Anglo-Norman French was the language of the court, and John’s mom was Eleanor of Aquitaine.
By the sixteenth century, as many as 1 in 5 men answered to John. Fifteen of the Mayflower passengers were John. He was the #1 name when the US statistics were first compiled in 1880, and he still held the top spot in 1923. John was a stand-in name for centuries, transitioning from John-a-Noakes to John Doe over the years.
John stayed in the Top Ten through the 1980s, though he slid from #1 to #5 to #9 over the years. As of 2011, he hit #27 – still wildly common, but for John, surprisingly uncommon. Jackson actually outranks John nowadays in the US, and he’s long since been eclipsed by Jack in the UK.
All of this makes John an unassailable classic, and yet, something of an opportunity, too. While no one would ever think of John as unusual, a boy named John today is less likely to share his name than James or William – at least not with kids his own age. And since John’s slide is slow but steady, he might feel rarer still – the masculine equivalent of Mary, evergreen but no longer everywhere.