John Defined: A List of Popular Johns of History

Among the long line of disastrous JOHNs is a list of popes ranging from JOHN I to JOHN XXIII. Many of these JOHNs were either nonentities or suffered some sort of bad luck. For instance, Pope JOHN I died in jail, as did JOHN X, JOHN XI, and JOHN XIV. At least one JOHN, Pope JOHN XII, was assassinated and Pope JOHN XXI (who decided to skip XX and become XXI) was crushed to death when his apartment at the papal palace at Viterbo collapsed, crushing him. There was also Pope JOHN VIII who was imprisoned by a duke, later mocked for his effeminacy, and finally poisoned to death.

Pope John XXI, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Pope John XXI. Courtesy of Wikipedia,

But Popes named JOHN were not the only unlucky ones. There was also a slew of royalty named JOHN that suffered calamities or bad luck. For instance, JOHN STUART ascended the throne in Scotland in 1390 and changed his name to Robert (becoming Robert III of Scotland) but that did not stop the calamities and infirmities that befell him. JOHN OF ENGLAND suffered a bad reign resulting in the baronial revolt that ultimately resulted in his sealing the Magna Carta. There is also Yohannes IV, Emperor of Ethiopia, but known as KING JOHN to the English, who suffered bad luck because when he was fighting the Madhis in 1889 and victory was going his way, he behaved rashly, went behind enemy lines, and died from a mortal wound.

JOHN BULL seemed to have better luck than any of the JOHNs above. He was created by the Scottish DR. JOHN ARBUTHNOT  in 1712 and became the national representation and nickname for the English. He was described as “a bluff, kindhearted, bull-headed farmer,” but it was John Tenniel who really popularized him in his Punch cartoons. Tenniel depicted JOHN BULL as a portly man, who wore light-colored breeches, a tailcoat, and a shallow-crowned top hat, all of which indicated his middle class identity. American cartoonists also embraced JOHN BULL, as shown in the Puck cover. It depicts the competition between America’s Uncle Sam and Britain’s JOHN BULL.

Puck Cover with John Bull and Uncle Sam, Author's Collection

Puck Cover with John Bull and Uncle Sam. Author’s collection.

JOHN LONG was used to mean waiting a long time and while you were waiting for JOHN LONG, you might want a SIR JOHN BARLEYCORN, a jocular name for ale or beer made from barley. You could drink your SIR JOHN BARLEYCORN in a JOHN ROBERTS as that was an enormous tankard that supposedly held enough drink for an ordinary drinker to last through Saturday and Sunday. That was important because the tankard’s name was derived from JOHN ROBERTS, M.P. He was the author of the Sunday Closing Act in Wales in 1881 that closed all public houses on Sunday. JOHN ROBERTS thought it would eliminate drunkenness, but it didn’t work partly because it encouraged the opening of numerous private social clubs excluded from the act.

Interestingly, it was not just drink that was associated with JOHN. So was the toilet. A number of men named JOHN seemed to be involved with the toilet’s creation, and although Americans gave the toilet the nickname JOHN, its seems none of these JOHNs were the origin of the nickname. SIR JOHN HARINGTON (also spelled Harrington) designed the modern forerunner to the flushing toilet in 1596, and, in the late 1700s, JOHN BRAMAH was involved with toilets too. He developed a float valve system for the flush tank. Some people mistaken believe the toilet must have something to do with JOHN CRAPPER, but his name isn’t JOHN (its Thomas) and he did not invent it (Harington did and Alexander Cumming patented it). So, why it’s known as a JOHN remains a mystery.

Sir John Harington, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sir John Harington. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

What doesn’t remain a mystery is several other interesting references to JOHN. There is JOHN TAMSON’S MAN, a name given a henpecked husband who was ordered about by a demanding wife. Newly enlisted soldiers in the English army were also ordered about but they were known as a JOHNNY RAW, and, during the time of Napoleon Bonaparte, English sailors called Frenchmen JOHNNY CRAPAUD, a derisive name used by the ancient Flemings for French people who had a reputation of eating toads. That’s likely why at some point Frenchmen began frightening noisy children into quietness by threatening them with a scary man they called JOHN ENGLISHMAN.

Besides the fictitious JOHN ENGLISHMAN, there are other fictitious JOHNs, but these JOHNs were not too bright. JOHN-A-DREAMS was supposedly always half asleep and so dull he was considered a stupid fellow, as was George Whetstone’s character, JOHN-A-DROYNES who was cheated out of his money. Another well-known simpleton was JOHN-A-NOKES (or Noakes). He had his horses stolen out from under him and his name served as another name for JOHN DOE, the name used for a hypothetical plaintiff with the supposition that “Richard Roe” was the defendant.


  • Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 1898.
  • Wheeler, William Adolphus, An Explanatory and Pronouncing Dictionary of the Noted Names of Fiction, 1872.

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