Blogs > Cliopatria > Why "John" Became a Popular Name

Mar 12, 2004 10:11 pm


Why "John" Became a Popular Name



Jack Malvern, in the London Times (March 11, 2004):

JOHN may no longer be the name of choice for today's new parents, who seem to prefer Jack or Alfie, but 800 years ago baby boys were unlikely to be called anything else.

Fresh research into naming patterns in the Middle Ages shows that 35 per cent of men in 1377 were called John. The dominance of a handful of names was so strong that more than half of men and boys were named John or William. A further quarter was divided between Thomas, Richard and Robert.

The supremacy of John persisted for centuries. He was knocked from the top spot by William only in the 19th century. The pattern emerged when George Redmonds, a historian from Huddersfield , combed through lists of men, women and children registered to pay the poll tax, the national tax that was so rigorously enforced that it caused the Peasants' Revolt in 1381.

The name first became popular among the upper classes after a religious revival in the early 13th century when John the Baptist became a favourite saint. As crusaders returned from the Holy Land, churches bearing the names of St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist sprang up. Today they account for around 700 churches.

The name spread to the lower classes because children tended to be named not by their parents but by their godfathers, usually the local landowner. Once the name became established it proliferated and remained in families as traditions changed and boys were named after their fathers.

Leslie Dunkling, a name expert who compiled the Guinness Book of Names series, said that the philosophy of naming a boy after his father guaranteed John's supremacy.

"Unlike the naming of girls, the naming of boys was considered a very serious business," he said. "It remained popular right up until the 1950s, when suddenly people decided that their children should not inherit their parents' names." John, which had only ever been second to William and David until 1950, fell out of fashion and was ranked twelfth among boys named in 1965. In 1975 it was at number 25 and ten years later number 30. By 1995 it was no longer in the top 50.

Mr Dunkling added: "John and William were left out in the cold. They conjured up a rather middle-aged image and fell out of fashion."

John in its various forms has also been consistently popular in Europe . Ian (Scotland), Sean (Ireland), Ieuan (Wales), Yann (Brittany), Jean (France), Giovanni (Italy), Juan (Spain), Jens (Denmark), Ivan (Russia), Johann or Hans (Germany) have all dominated their countries' top ten names. The name also filtered into surnames, creating Joneses and Johnsons. It derives from johanan, a Hebrew word meaning "God is gracious" or "Jehovah has favoured".

Names were at their most diverse in the late 1100s, but hundreds were eradicated as the Saxon custom of giving each child a unique name was replaced by Norman traditions, under which children could share the same first name but would be distinguished by a surname.


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