John Today, Gianni Tomorrow

Guest blogger SONIA TSURUOKA, who’s been interning at nameberry this month, examines the long rise and recent fall of the name John and the advent of its upstart cousins.

Pretty much everybody knows someone named John.

Backed by its rich history and plenty of timeless appeal, this all-time favorite enjoyed its moment of baby-name stardom, gaining a measure of glitz and glamour thanks to high-profile hotties John Travolta, John Cusack, and Johnny Depp, along with celebrity parents like Michelle Pfeiffer, Bono, and Rob Lowe all named their sons John.

Yet after dropping out of the Top 25 this year for the first time in recorded baby name history, John seems destined to keep sliding.

Which leads us to ask: what, exactly, is its future? What newer, more timely forms are taking the place of the original? And what made John such a classic to begin with?

Like a lot of names, John first got its start in biblical times. Blame it on the Baptists and the Apostles, but in those days, everybody and their brother was named John. Even the English caught on – you know, after a century or ten – and were so smitten with the name that they bestowed it upon a fifth of all English boys during the Middle Ages.

John was used for so many boys (sometimes in the same family) that it spawned a variety of nicknames.  The medieval Jankin, for instance, morphed into Jackin was shortened to Jack.  For years, Jack rivaled John in the polls – both inside and outside of Great Britain – spawning everything from Jack and the Beanstalk to Jack Russell terriers.

But by the early 20th century, John — and to a lesser extent, Jack — had acquired so many rude associations that it lost stature as a name.  Toilets and clients of prostitution were called johns, there were the generic John Q. Public and John Doe, prices were jacked up, and….it gets worse.  In 1924, John fell out of the Number 1 place (it was replaced by Robert), which it’s never regained.

And John‘s fate is likely to continue to spiral downward.  By 2004, it had already plummeted from the Top 50 in England and WalesJack, on the other hand, flourished in its native land, as the most popular male name from 1995 to 2005. It’s still solidly in England’s Top 5, though it’s never breached the American Top 10 (it was Number 42 in the most recent year counted).

The most popular John and Jack relative right now is Jackson, taking over the Number 25 spot. While Jackson feels like a newcomer name, nudged into the spotlight by painter Pollock and musician Browne, it’s actually been on the Top 1000 since the start of American baby-naming time, as high in 1880, when it was number 247, as it was in 1991.

Spelling variation Jaxon was one of the swiftest rising boys’ names this year, and also making strides up the charts are the Italian Giovanni and Gianni. Irish variation Sean, despite or perhaps because of its choice for her son by Britney Spears, is dropping after its highs in the 70s and 80s.

Jack, however, is Hollywood’s favorite name.  Jack Shepard, of Lost, and Jack Bauer, of 24, have done their name proud, risking their hides to accomplish Herculean feats like incarcerating terrorists, and maybe even banishing a smoke monster or two. Other notable Jacks are lovable eccentrics, like swashbuckling pirate Jack Sparrow – played by Johnny Depp – who always have a Jack Daniels at arm’s length, and  30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy, who’s juggled romances with Greta van Susteren, Condoleezza Rice, and Beyonce. Jacks of all Trade indeed!

SONIA TSURUOKA is an incoming freshman at Johns Hopkins University. She loves the name Jack – mainly because of her fascination with writer Jack Kerouac – and has always been intrigued by its etymology. Over the course of her high school career, she’s served as the Editor-in-Chief of her school newspaper, literary magazine, and the Opinions Editor of ScoopDaily.com. Her interests include everything from politics to pop culture, and she ultimately plans to pursue a career in journalism after double-majoring in International Studies and Writing Seminars.

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15 Responses to “John Today, Gianni Tomorrow”

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Bella Says:

July 16th, 2010 at 7:47 am

Very well written and researched! 🙂

Chloe Says:

July 16th, 2010 at 8:27 am

Just wondering… Interning at Nameberry? This intrigued me. By interning, do you mean helping with the website, or something along those lines?

Sorry if I’m missing something very obvious… 😛

Macy Says:

July 16th, 2010 at 10:47 am

To be honest, don’t really care where the name ends. Never liked John (or the equally popular Robert). Jack sounds like a better alternative, or even the foreign versions like Gianni, Giovanni, Juan, João. Still, neither are at the top of my lists, it just bores me to death, and there are millions of Johns out there…

Sonia Says:

July 16th, 2010 at 11:54 am

Chloe — thanks for your question! I’m currently helping out with the website by researching, updating text, writing blogs, making baby name lists, etc. Tasks along those lines!

Alexandra Says:

July 16th, 2010 at 2:05 pm

Johnny Depp, also has a son named John, whom he calls Jack.

My father is a John who goes by Jack at work, since there are so many other John’s in his workplace. John seems boring to me and I adore the name Jack but both are too popular and overused for me to even consider them.

Chloe Says:

July 16th, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Sonia,

Wow, how fun! Anything to do with names is fun! 🙂

Joy Says:

July 16th, 2010 at 9:02 pm

I never liked John. Its boring and unappealing to me. I find it to sound rather old too.

Jack is ok not a huge fan of Jackson either.

I do like Gianni and Giovanni. Sean is cute too.

babynamesrule Says:

July 16th, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Jack is my absolute favourite boy name. And I never realized how rude the name John can be!!

British American Says:

July 17th, 2010 at 9:56 am

When I was thinking of babies I know that were born in 2009/ 2008, the most popular name that I encountered was John, which did surprise me. There was a John Paul, a Johnathan, a John and a Johnny. It’s not a favourite of mine and I do prefer Jack.

E Says:

July 17th, 2010 at 4:55 pm

In my opinion, John is the most unoriginal male name there is.

Susan Chesney Says:

July 18th, 2010 at 11:06 am

I love John nn Jack. But I don’t think I could name my son John. I would worry that it was too unoriginal. I love Owen which is a form of John.

Susan Chesney Says:

July 18th, 2010 at 11:09 am

Uh oh, I don’t think Owen is a form of John after all. I looked Owen up on “check out a name”. Oh, well. But Owen is very handsome, ends in an “n”, and is easy to say. It is a great alternative to John.

Stella Says:

July 19th, 2010 at 9:47 am

I only know one John who is 25 and very handsome. I do think of it as a very plain name, but I admit it’s a name that doesn’t wear its person, you know? Jack is a favorite of my partner’s, but I think it is too popular. It would have to be paired with another name like “Jack Luther” and said together.

Loren Says:

July 19th, 2010 at 12:40 pm

Name etymology aside, I think the most common “John” substitute today is Jonathan. Note the rise of names like johnathon, which demonstrates that parents choosing this name probably don’t even realize they are combining two historically distinct names.

Jill G Says:

July 20th, 2010 at 10:54 am

I went to college with a John who went by Jake instead of Jack.

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