Monthly Archives: February 2012

What’s peculiar about Jack and John? A couple of things. Firstly, they’re anthroponyms as well as popular first names. They’re also perfect examples of how England and the US are divided by a common language.


In what way are they anthroponyms? They are anthropomorphised synonyms for a particular room in an English speaking household. They aren’t the only anthroponyms for that room but that room is the only one in the house to attract anthroponyms. You don’t cook in the Mary, sleep in the Katie or sit in the David. Although the kitchen, bedroom and lounge have their fair share of synonyms, no one has tried to turn them into a man or woman.

What do you call it?

What people do a lot of in America is go to the john (sadly, it’s rarely capitalised). The English used to want to speak to Jack but that euphemism is no longer in common use. There are plenty of others taking its place and some of them are equally anthropomorphic. Going to see a man about a dog is a popular catchall description for an activity you don’t wish to divulge and has been frequently used when someone is off to the bathroom/ toilet/ wc/ lav/ loo. Travellers, I understand, prefer going to visit an aunt. A number of people like to associate their excretory habits with childishness and pop to the little boy’s or little girl’s room. People with a more humorous turn of mind, and no liking for the legal profession, have been known to remark that they wish to be excused while they give birth to a lawyer.

Clearly there’s a lot of social history wound around the way we describe ‘the smallest room in the house’.

What I’m not sure of is whether the Anglo-American compulsion to anthropomorphise the human waste disposal room is shared by many other cultures. I don’t think it is. However, I’m ready to be put right about that especially since I was once in Bavaria with a group of locals who found it hilarious to constantly ask whether I needed the Winston Churchill.

Divided by language

John. Jack. Why did the Americans anthropomorphise it differently?

Mucking about with English has always been a mildly rebellious pastime for England’s once upon a time colonists. Some of their linguistic transgressions are understandable, even admirable.

  • If you’ve got an O, you rarely need a U after it, because that doesn’t change the way a word sounds one iota.
  • Z’s a perky little letter and I can’t comprehend why we English took against it so. Perhaps it was anti-Hanoverian sentiment. I’m no etymologist but I can’t spot any underlying rules behind the way we’ve weeded out Z. It’s both amazing and amusing to me that I’ve never been amased or amuzed. If Bill Gates wasn’t so relentless in trying to make me do it, I would thoroughly applaud ending verbs with ‘ize’ instead of ‘ise’.
  • America’s played a huge role in the development of the car, sorry, automobile. I therefore can’t argue with giving it a trunk (boot), hood (bonnet) and fender (bumper)┬ábefore filling it with gas (petrol).
  • My bile begins to rise at the way the billion has been devalued a thousandfold from its 13 number origin in English.

    Carlos Slim, richest man in the world but not a billionaire?

  • It’s the use of gotten that really gets my goat. Horrible, guttural, Teutonic noise which in no way improves upon got.

Jack to john is another unnecessary fiddle with the English language. In defence of America, you have stuck with it a lot longer than we did with Jack.

Where did john come from?

How and why it came about is what a favourite Elizabethan of mine wants clarified. His name was John, he was known as Jack and he more or less invented the only anthropomorphised room in your house.

It’s possible that John Harington put his name to the American water closet. John Harington (Jack to Queen Elizabeth and other noble acquaintances) was the man who came to mind whenever the privy came into a conversation in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. He invented the mechanically flushing toilet – sadly without the S bend or a sewer system – and then wrote a famously impenetrable book about it, ‘A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax ‘.

John Harington, the name behind the john?

As its title suggests to those of us who are as fond of a pun as he was, the privy was associated with the name Jack well before John ‘Jack’ Harington was about. By Shakespeare’s time, the jack of the early Tudor period had become the jakes and Harington thought it classically witty to use an immortal Greek to pun about the privy. His wit went over a lot of people’s heads and the English didn’t see much of a future in his cock and vice, perfumed flushing system either.

The French did and took it up enthusiastically. In all likelihood, it was the French connection that encouraged our former colony to take up the flush toilet that came to be known as the john. Jefferson and co. were impressed with anything French.

Was it still known as the jack or jakes in the early days of the USA? Did de Tocqueville or some other visiting French intellectual amusingly refer to the call of the ‘jean’? Did Americans call it the ‘john’ as a jibe at, or homage to, the British inventor whose foresight had been ignored by his fellow Englishmen?

Rather like the origins of OK, it’s not one of history’s greatest conundrums but a puzzle nevertheless.