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I have always wondered this since I was little, and nobody seems to have asked or answered this before anywhere on the internet. What is the origin of the 'h', and why is it still with us?

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bad joke - Because the silent 'h' in John stands for hooker. – Adel Jun 25 '11 at 20:22
up vote 19 down vote accepted

That's a relic from previous versions of the name. From Etymonline:

John masc. proper name, mid-12c., from M.L. Johannes, from L.L. Joannes, from Gk. Ioannes, from Heb. Yohanan (in full y'hohanan) lit. "Jehovah has favored," from hanan "he was gracious."

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So was the Gospel of John actually something else before 12c? Like Yohanan? – JoseK Jun 22 '11 at 13:14
@JoseK, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Unreason Jun 22 '11 at 13:42

It seems to be a remnant of the h in the Latin spelling Johannes, possibly via an abbreviation.

In some early documents, e.g. the 1292 Subsidy Rolls of London, John is most often abbreviated as Joh', but occasionally you meet a non-abbreviated spelling such as Jon. And in the Rutland Lay Subsidy of 1296, the name occurs as John unless it's a patronymic (filius Johannis). Ditto for the 1332 Lay Subsidy Rolls for Lincolnshire, but just a little bit later, the 1381 Suffolk Poll Tax mostly writes it out as Johannes, with a few odd cases (Johanne, Johannis), a couple where the -us ending is lost (Johann), and one "Joh...". Skipping ahead a few centuries, the Registers of the Church of St. Mary's, Dymock, 1538-1600 have quite a few variant spellings: John (788), Jhon (25), Johne (3), Jon (4), Johan (1), Jonh (1).

From this, I would tentatively conclude that (1.) the vernacular pronunciation of the name became a single-syllable "Jon" fairly early on, and (2.) the John spelling might have originally been a Latin-language abbreviation, but it came to be used as the standard vernacular spelling because it matched the vernacular pronunciation.

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From behindthename

English form of Iohannes, the Latin form of the Greek name Ιωαννης (Ioannes), itself derived from the Hebrew name יוֹחָנָן (Yochanan) meaning "YAHWEH is gracious".

This name owes its popularity to two New Testament characters, both highly revered saints. The first was John the Baptist, a Jewish ascetic who was considered the forerunner of Jesus Christ. The second was the apostle John, who was also traditionally regarded as the author of the fourth Gospel and Revelation.

This name was initially more common among Eastern Christians in the Byzantine Empire, but it flourished in Western Europe after the First Crusade. In England it became extremely popular: during the later Middle Ages it was given to approximately a fifth of all English boys.

it is visible that h was added in transition from Greek Ioannes to Latin Iohannes.

I know next to nothing of phonetics, however etymonline states that

M.L. Johannes is from L.L. Joannes

and in wikipedia article on Medieval Latin you can find a list of orthography changes, some of which are:

  • h might be lost, so that habere becomes abere, or mihi becomes mi (the latter also occurred in Classical Latin); or, mihi may be written michi, indicating the h came to be pronounced as k. This pronunciation is not found in Classical Latin.

  • The loss of h in pronunciation also led to the addition of h in writing where it did not previously belong, especially in the vicinity of r, such as chorona for corona, a tendency also sometimes seen in Classical Latin.

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As @Robusto said, it came from the Hebrew Yohanan, but just to show where it actually came from:

contraction from Hebrew יוֹחָנָן (Johanan)

The word יוֹחָנָן comes from:

From the Hebrew phrase יהוה חנון (Yihoh Khanun, "Jehovah is gracious")

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