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There are a good few words in English that come from names:

  • To jimmy a lock is to break it.
  • To jack someone is to rob them.
  • To peter out is to become tired.
  • A john is a bathroom, or one who buys the services of a lady of the evening.

Is there any connection between how they formed or a common history among them? As an aside, does it happen in other languages?

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5 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

In the meanings you cite, jimmy is from 1848, jack is American English from 1904, peter out is miners' slang from 1846, and the two johns are from 1932 and 1911, respectively.

The only connection I was able to find between any two of them is this:

john "toilet," 1932, probably from jack, jakes, used for "toilet" since 16c. (see jack).

As to the aside, yes, it does happen in other languages, too. As the most obvious example off the top of my head, the Russian derogative term for a German is фриц (Fritz), and the German derogative term for a Russian is Iwan (Ivan).

Edit: seanyboy's answer made me revisit peter out, and it is indeed not clear whether it is connected to the name Peter at all. Etymonline says:

peter (v.) "cease, stop," 1812, of uncertain origin. To peter out "become exhausted," is 1846 as miners' slang.

Wiktionary adds:

Various speculative etymologies have been suggested. One suggestion is that it comes from peter being an abbreviation of saltpeter, the key ingredient in gunpowder – when a mine was exhausted, it was “petered”. Other derivations are from St. Peter (from sense of “rock”), or French péter (“to fart”).

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... so "repéter" means "to fart again". Repéter et écouter. Nice. –  Antony Quinn Nov 3 '10 at 19:19
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If "peter out" is miners slang, then it's possible that Peter refers to Saltpetre, instead of a specific person.

Although it doesn't seem to apply to any of the examples you cited, names as verb/nouns regularly come from Cockney Rhyming Slang.

Jimmy - To urinate.
Vera's - Cigarette papers.
Barney - Trouble

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I have always taken it for granted that in the case of Peter, the reference was to Peter denying Christ - That is, he wimped out and despite previous protestations about the strength of his support faded away...

(EDIT: The use of "Peter" as a popular euphemism for penis is even more obvious....)

I think it's help to look at the cultural context here. Since most English speakers across time will have had knowledge of the stories in the Bible even when there was little or no other literature available and the majority were illiterate, this obvious and widely shared reference makes sense to me as a probable source.

Likewise, the fact that "John" is probably the most common man's name is reason enough for it to be used for a generic male customer. ("Sheila", on the other hand, may have a more interesting story behind it.)

EDIT: Note also - lyric from Guys and Dolls

When you spot a John
waiting out in the rain
chances are he's insane
as only a John can be for a Jane

In this case "John" does not refer to a customer and a professional relationship, merely an ordinary male, and a romantic relationship. Again, simply indicate 'a man' by the most common name of 'a man'.

There will always be exceptions but I suspect that usually the simplest common archetype or cultural touchstone is a safe bet for a source.

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To answer your second question, yes, verbification does occur in other languages.

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But part of the answer which hasn't been clearly stated that I can find, is that most of your examples are not from names: they just happen to be similar to names.

There are words (particularly slang) which comes from names, but just because a word resembles a name you cannot assume that it comes from the name.

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