Plain Jane is back in fashion, but what about this spin on a feminine form of John?

Thanks to Photoquilty for suggesting Joan as Name of the Day.

It’s not just Jane. You’ll hear some stylish parents calling out Johannah. On the boys’ side, I’ve been asked to cover masculine variants St. John, Johann, Ivan and Ewan here. And you can’t walk past a playground without hearing someone call out Jack or Jackson. But Joan remains decidedly underused – she exited the US Top 1000 entirely after 1993.

Once upon a time, Jane was the also-ran.

Only a handful of names can claim the kind of constant use enjoyed by John. He’s been imported, translated and transformed from first name to last name and back again. In Medieval England, Joan was the favored feminization. (If you begin with the Latin Iohannes, you’ll arrive at Johannes – and many of the variant versions start to make much more sense!)

Joan was widely heard throughout Medieval Europe. Until the 1600s, Jane was the runner up.

First there’s the scandalous Pope Joan. Legend has it that a whip-smart young woman managed to get herself elected to the office back in the 850s by masquerading as a whip-smart young man.

The story is usually dismissed as a fiction designed to embarrass the church. The culmination is quite dramatic – Joan goes into labor and gives birth during a papal procession, thereby revealing her charade. Some scholars argue that there could be a kernel of truth to her tale, but the Roman Catholic Church gives it no credence.

Then there’s Saint Joan, Joan of Arc. Her story is familiar – a French peasant girl believes God calls her to lead an army against England. She follows through on the unthinkable summons, and leads France to victory, only to be captured and burned at the stake by the English. The Kings of France – in her debt, and possibly concerned that their throne had been secured by a heretic – lobbied Rome to proclaim her innocence. Today, she’s not just a national heroine of France, she’s arguably one of the best known saints. She’s inspired literature (Shakespeare, Voltaire, Twain), music (Tchaikovsky, Verdi) and television (CBS’s short-lived but critically acclaimed Joan of Arcadia.)

Joan has also been worn by:

  • Queens of Naples, Navarre and Castile, a Princess of Wales in the 1200s and plenty of other nobles in Spain, Portugal, Brittany, Scotland and France;
  • Oscar-award winners Joan Crawford and Joan Fontaine;
  • Writers from the sensational Joan Collins to the literary Joan Didion;
  • Music’s Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Joan Jett;
  • Comedienne Joan Rivers;
  • Everyone’s favorite little sister, fictional Joanie Cunningham from television’s Happy Days.

There are plenty of others, and that’s before adding in the French, Dutch and Spanish men wearing the name Joan, including Barcelona-born artist Joan Miro.

It may be that Joan just needs another decade or so in hibernation before she sounds perfectly current once more. After all, she spent the 1930s solidly installed in the US Top Ten, reaching as high as #5, and lingered in the US Top 100 right through 1964.

But given her long history of use, her frills-free vibe and that open “o” sound, what’s not to love? There’s something nicely distinctive about the classic Joan.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. I think it’s spot-on that Joan won’t feel fresh for about another ten years. Several other names from the 1930s and 40s also haven’t taken off yet, like Margaret, Mary, Celia, and Esther. This seems consistent with the 100 year rule. I love Joan’s quiet strength. My significant other’s mom is a radiant Joan, which has contributed to my positive estimation of this name.

  2. I don’t think I thought much of the name Joan until I became a Mad Men junkie – now I envision the woman on the show who bears the name – a lusty redhead with killer curves. She’s delicious, and now her name seems delicious too!

  3. Lola, I LOVE your family stories! It seems that a few generations in your lineage have understood the value of names. As for Joan and Jean, I much prefer Jane. I went to a Catholic school for two years; had the name been ‘Joan of Arc’ instead of ‘Juana de Arco’, I might have become a fan.

    I see Joan as a stoic type; Joanie and Joni soften her up.

  4. Our first two daughters’ names came from three out of four of their great grandmothers. The one left for us to honor when naming number 3 was Joan, and I just couldn’t get into it, even as a middle name, so she ended up Beatrix Joanna.

    I still love her name, but my one occasional regret is that we didn’t just go with Joan for her middle name. I still can’t hear it as cool… yet, but I have a feeling in ten years or so it will be sounding a little fresher and I will really be kicking myself.

  5. Sorry, I can’t find anything to like about this one. Like Maud (sorry, Lola!), Joan sounds dowdy, drab, and yes, plain to me. But then, girl names almost can’t be too “frilly” and feminissima to me!

  6. I agree that Joan is just about ready to feel fresh again. I like the name, but don’t find it perfect just yet, and wouldn’t use it on any of our daughters. I’m sure my other half would find it boring and dated.

    But I find that I like Joan better than Jane. Jane, while pretty, has always felt flat to me. It’d be delightful, though, to meet a Joan.

    Agreed with Lola though, don’t like Joanie. And not keen on the rhymes with moan aspect either.

  7. I like Joan, I think she’s got oomph! 🙂 My dad would say “Joan is handsome”; nothing flashy about Joan but boy does she have substance!

    My favorite Joan? Joan Cusack, John Cusack’s older sister (but not the oldest). I’m obsessed with John (and have been for Years!), but Joan makes me laugh and sometimes cry, so I think she’s a worthy namesake as well.

    The only thing I dislike about Joan? Joanie. And I’m not a huge fan of Jo, but wow, that’s better than Joanie, which will still get “Joanie loves Chachi” in my house.
    Joan of Arc was an interesting chick, to put it mildly. My Babci used to say my mother nearly was a Joan, but Gagi put his foot down, “No plain name for MY daughter!” So Mom got the “prettier” Jane in the middle, following the froofy Francesca. I think she would have rathered Joan. Oh well. Can’t win ’em all, can you? 🙂 So my vote comes down strongly in favor of Joan. such simple, feminine strength is a refreshing change from all the – Bellas! 😀