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.