John can be Jack, but can Jack be John?

News-DemocratJanuary 14, 2014 

Nicknames are sometimes used to shorten the original name -- e.g., Robert may be called Bob or Rob. But I know a couple of people named John who commonly are called Jack. John Kennedy was often called Jack. Why? Are people named Jack ever called John? -- J.D., of Freeburg

Looks like two birds get killed with one stone today: I can answer your question while silencing any critics who still say I don't know jack.

Of course, that won't be hard thanks to "The Pedigree of Jack and Various Allied Names" by Edward W.B. Nicholson way back in 1892.

Over the years, many have speculated that Jack is derived from the French "Jacques" and should, therefore, be the shortened form of "James," which is the English equivalent of Jacques. ("Jacques" comes from the Latin "Iacobus," a form of the Hebrew "Jacob": "James" is derived from "Iacomus," a slight variant of "Iacobus.")

But in his well-researched piece, Nicholson wrote that he found no evidence of Jack ever being used as a pet name for Jacques or James. (If you're wondering about Nicholson's credentials, he is one of only 24 people who have headed the main library at the University of Oxford since 1599.)

Instead, he wrote, Jack is actually a shortened version of "Johannes" -- and here is where this tale gets tangled as it makes its way over various tongues through the centuries, so follow closely:

Johannes, he says, was shortened to Jehan and, eventually, simply Jan. But the French were fond of adding "-kin" to short names much as we often turn Bob and John into Bobby and Johnny. As a result, Jan became Jankin, but it was difficult for some to duplicate the French nasal pronunciations. So, Jankin was turned into Jackin, which was shortened to Jack.

Thus, taking a very convoluted path, the much longer Johannes turned into Jan, which eventually became associated with Jack. Similarly, he said, the Scottish version "Jock" was a similar contraction of "Jon" and "kin."

By the 1300s, he wrote, "jack" had become a common noun for any man or boy. Later, it even became a popular synonym for "sailor" -- hence, the Cracker Jack brand with its Sailor Jack and his dog, Bingo. Now, Jack, which was once a very popular name in itself, remains an oft-used diminutive for John, but not vice versa as far as I can tell.

Of course, all of this also may be making you wonder how such a nice, Christian name as "John" became a slang word for toilet, so let me save you a stamp or an e-mail:

According to most accounts, the term can be traced to Sir John Harington (sometimes spelled "Harrington"), an English courtier and writer who lived from 1561 to 1612.

He reportedly was one of Queen Elizabeth I's 102 godchildren and was often called her "saucy godson" because of his frequently risque writing. But apparently he is most remembered today for devising Britain's first flush toilet, which he called the Ajax -- short for "a jakes," jakes being an older slang term for the loo.

It also got him into trouble when he wrote "A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax." Instead of detailing the evolution of the toilet, it was a thinly veiled attack on the "stercus" (excrement) he saw in English society at the time. He fell out of favor with the queen, but his name is still remembered when we make our way to the bathroom.

And, while we're on the subject of nicknames, how about a couple more to save even more time:

Richard-Dick: The prevailing theory is that the Normans, who descended from the Vikings and settled in northern France, had a unique way of trilling their r's. When the English tried to mimic this sound, the "r" turned into a "d." Hence, "Richard" and "Rick" may have emerged as "Dickard" and "Dick."

James-Jim: In medieval Europe, many names became altered when the Romance languages of the Norman French ran up against the more gutteral sounds of the Germanic tribes. It may also explain how Molly became a nickname for Mary.

Henry-Harry: Harry was the Medieval English form of the Germanic Heimiric or Henry. "Hank," derived from "Jankin" and "Hankin," was originally associated more with John before it became a nickname for Henry.

Your Jennifer Schaaf recently bid us and journalism farewell. After all those fine parenting columns, I'd like to know where she went. -- Ron O'Connor, of Belleville

After 18 years with the News-Democrat, my former colleague would like to thank her many loyal readers as she embarks on the next chapter of her life as a paralegal/legal assistant at a Clayton, Mo., law firm.

Today's trivia

Who is the model for the sailor on the Cracker Jack box -- and what is his sad story?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: Who can forget actor Jimmy Stewart's raspy voice as he nears the end of his one-man filibuster in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"? Well, to achieve that heart-wrenching effect, he had a little help: Depending which story you believe, he dried out his throat by gargling with bicarbonate of soda and/or had it periodically swabbed with mercuric chloride despite its toxicity.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or or call 618-239-2465.

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