Over on ADS-L, Fred Shapiro (the Yale quotations man) forwarded a query:

I have been asked about why the word john is used to denote a prostitute’s client.  It seems obvious to me that the name John, because of its commonness, became a generic term for men, perhaps with the implication that prostitute’s clients don’t give their real names.

This is undoubtedly as complete an answer as you could hope for, but many people find it unsatisfying; they’re hoping for a *story*, a story with a particular prostitute’s client named John as its central figure. People are narratophiles; they love stories.

OED2 starts with

A masculine Christian name, that of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist; hence from early Middle English times one of the commonest in England.

and goes on through a pile of metonymic uses, among them:

Used as a representative proper name for a footman, butler, waiter, messenger, or the like, and in other ways [cf. Jack, Johnny] [17th century on]

A policeman; (less commonly) a detective. In full,  johndarm n. … [ < French gendarme] Also with suffixed quasi-surname, as John Dunn (Austral.), John Hop (Austral. and N.Z.), John Law (U.S.).  [from 1858 on]

slang (chiefly U.S.). With lower-case initial. A lavatory, water-closet. [presumably, originally ‘men’s room, gents’; first clear cite in 1932]

depreciative (now offensive). In full John Chinaman: a Chinese man; Chinese people regarded collectively. [from 1818 on]

slang (orig. U.S.). A ponce [i.e. pimp; from 1911 on]; the client of a prostitute [from 1928 on].

Abbrev. of John Thomas [‘penis’]. [from 1934 on]

John will stand in for any man.



2 Responses to “john”

  1. Michael Vnuk Says:

    I wondered if you had made up ‘narratophile’ (simply ‘lover of stories’), so I checked and found that ‘narratophilia’ (not in the OED)already has a more specific fetish meaning (eg see Wikipedia). Perhaps a different word is needed for the general sense you want. It is certainly a useful concept, not only for folk etymology, but also for any other time that people develop a story to explain something. Such a word may be already out there, but I couldn’t find it quickly.

  2. Terminological precedence « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a comment on my posting on john ‘prostitute’s client’, Michael  objects to my use of […]

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