45

When used as an expletive, the name Jesus Christ often gets an H inserted into the middle of it for some reason. I've heard lots of guesses about what the H stands for, the most popular one being Henry, but no one seems to actually know, and I've never gotten any good explanation of where it came from or why it became popular to insert it.

  • Is there any documentation of when Jesus H. Christ as opposed to simply Jesus Christ came into currency as an expletive?
  • Is there any authoritative explanation of what, if anything, the H was originally supposed to stand for?
44

The primary theory appears to be that it derived from the "Greek monogram for Jesus, IHS or IHC" (World Wide Words) which is standard for the Greek name of IHCOYC (Christian Origins) which comes from ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (Persus Digital Library; see also the comments below; it is possible to render ΙΗΣΟΥΣ as IHCOYC in Greek, because C is in the Greek alphabet an alternative form of Σ). The origin stems from incorrectly assuming that IHC was an initialization of Jesus' name; the I for Jesus, the C for Christ, leaving H for... something.

A common children's joke involves a young child praying to "Harold" due to a misinterpretation of the Lord's Prayer's "hallowed be thy name" and it seems apt to backstitch that into the IHC/JHC explanation to continue the joke and poke fun at the saying.


Just to completely overkill this question, here are some NGrams that help point toward an American origin:

The English corpus: All English

The American English corpus: AmE

The British English corpus: BE

I suspect the phrase is older than the graphs show, but notice the complete absence of British usage. (That being said, having no hits in the British corpus seems slightly suspicious... as the comments below have pointed out.)

  • 15
    The larger assumption in "Jesus H. Christ" is that "Christ" is Jesus' last (family) name, and once you've assumed that he has a last name, a middle initial makes sense. ("Christ" is a title that means "the anointed one", and isn't Jesus' family name.) My instinct is that inserting the H softens the expletive by making it less literal and by being a bit humorous. – Wayne May 17 '11 at 13:49
  • No, "Harald" is "Harald Angel", the guy singing in the Christmas carol. – Hot Licks Aug 24 '18 at 18:52
  • @HotLicks I always thought his name was "Hark" - "Hark, the Harald Angel". – WS2 Aug 24 '18 at 18:58
11

I don't believe that anybody (except small children) ever actually thought that H. was Jesus' middle initial. The H. was inserted to avoid committing blasphemy by saying Jesus Christ. It's the same phenomenon as replacing damn with darn. So Jesus H. Christ here is presumably not the son of God but just somebody else with a very similar name.

Why H. instead of another letter? I assume that MrHen has it right in his answer by saying it comes from IHC.

8

There is a straight dope item from 1974 on this question.

In addition to the IHC theory there is a suggestion

Finally, a reader makes the claim that the H derives from the taunting Latin inscription INRH that was supposedly tacked on the cross by Roman soldiers: Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Hebrei (Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Hebrews). Trouble is, the inscription is usually given as INRI: Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum (J.C., King of the Jews).

  • Isn't this answer a suggestion from a reference that refutes the suggestion? – MrHen May 17 '11 at 16:19
  • @MrHen That's true but I really just wanted to link to the article because it's the first (published) attempt to answer the question. You think I should remove/change the quote? – z7sg Ѫ May 17 '11 at 16:46
  • I don't know. It is an odd call; the published article appears to be refuting an apparently popular theory... so it seems relevant. But I would probably make it a little more clear that the article isn't actually advocating that suggestion. Others are upvoting so it seems to be interesting/helpful. Your call. I just thought it was odd. – MrHen May 17 '11 at 16:54
3

The history of usage of "Jesus H. Christ" is somewhat complicated by an anecdotal recollection (dated March 29, 1906) by Samuel Clemens in The Autobiography of Mark Twain:

Once [in approximately 1850] the celebrated founder of the at that time new and wide-spread sect called Campbellites, arrived in our village from Kentucky, and it made for prodigious excitement. ...

He preached a sermon on one of those occasions which he had written especially for that occasion. All the Campbellites wanted it printed, so that they could save it and read it over and over again, and get it by heart. So they drummed up sixteen dollars, which was a large sum then, and for this great sum Mr. Ament [who printed the Hannibal Courier newspaper] contracted to print five hundred copies of that sermon and put them in yellow paper covers. It was a sixteen-page duodecimo pamphlet, and it was a great event at our office. ...

Then we set up the remaining eight pages, locked them into a form and struck a proof. Wales [McCormick, a printer's apprentice, as was Clemens] read the proof, and presently was aghast, for he had struck a snag. ... He had left out a couple of words in a thin-spaced page of solid matter and there wasn't another break-line for two or three pages ahead. ... Then Wales had one of his brilliant ideas. In the line in which the "out" had been made occurred the name Jesus Christ. Wales reduced that to J.C. It made room for the missing words, but it took 99 per cent of the solemnity out of a particularly solemn sentence. We sent off the revise and waited. ... Presently that great Alexander Campbell appeared at the far end of that sixty-foot room, and his countenance cast a gloom over the whole place. He strode down to our end and what he said was brief but it was very stern, and it was to the point. He read Wales a lecture. He said, "So long as you live, don't you ever diminish the Savior's name again. Put it all in." He repeated this admonition a couple of times to emphasize it, then he went away.

In that day the common swearers of the region had a way of their own of emphasizing the Savior's name when they were using it profanely, and this fact intruded itself upon Wales's incorrigible mind. ... So he imposed upon himself the long and weary and dreary task of overrunning all those three pages in order to improve upon his former work and incidentally and thoughtfully improve upon the great preacher's admonition. He enlarged the offending J. C. into Jesus H. Christ. Wales knew that that would make prodigious trouble and it did. But it was not in him to resist it. He had to succumb to the law of his make. I don't remember what his punishment was, but he was not the person to care for that. He had already collected his dividend.

Some people have taken this story as evidence that "Jesus H. Christ" was a common epithet in mid-nineteenth-century small-town Missouri. But the absence of any contemporaneous evidence of such usage (in newspapers, for example) raises the possibility that the story was just an amusing invention created decades later, when "Jesus H. Christ" really was an established epithet.

J.E. Lighter, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, volume 2 (1997) gives a first confirmed occurrence date of 1892 for "Jesus H. Christ":

Jesus H. Christ n. & interj. {the H. is prob. fr. Gk epigram for Jesus, IHS or IHC, with the H (the Gk letter eta) reinterpreted as the E[nglish] letter H; see Roger Smith, "The H of Jesus H. Christ," A[merican] S[peech] 69:3 (Fall 1994), pp. 331–35} (used as a profane oath). Also Jesus H. [Earliest cited occurrence:] 1892 in A[lan] Lomax Folk Songs of N[orth] Amer[ica] 116: Jesus H. Christ, will you lay there all day?

The cited occurrence is in the fourth stanza of a folk song called "Moosehead Lake," which Lomax dates to 1892. The stanza runs as follows:

About five in the morning the cook would sing out, / "Come, bullies, come, bullies, come, bullies, turn out." / Oh, some would not mind him and back they would lay. / Then it's "Jesus H. Christ, will you lay there all day!" / Lovely fa-de-little-aro, sing tooral all day.


Early instances of 'Jesus H. Christ' as a personage

Newspaper database searches turn up several somewhat earlier matches for the phrase in the context of people named (or claiming to be named) "Jesus H. Christ," rather than as epithets. The earliest of these appears in an untitled item in the [Prescott] Arizona Miner (July 30, 1880):

The Bulletin of the 19th has a sensible article on middle letters in names, titles, etc. ... In olden times a single name was sufficient for the greatest of men, as Solomon, Cicero, etc., but now some people have the bad taste to add three and even four. The writer thinks two quite enough, and condemns middle letters, especially if they mean nothing. He supposes a case by way of illustration to show how badly it would sound if Washington had adopted a middle letter. Geo. T. Washington for instance, Napoleon D. Bonaparte, Jesus H. Christ, Julius L. Cæsar, T. Culpepper Jefferson, B. Guttenberg Franklin. The most illustrious names in history he contends are the simplest and plainest.

From "The Name of Jesus and Christ," in the [Terre Haute, Indiana] Daily Wabash Express (January 13, 1885):

The name of Jesus and Christ sound very sacred to English-speaking people but among the Spanish both are very common names—given and surnames. At Laredo, the other day, Jesus H. Christ was registered at one of the hotels. We remember noting a few years ago that a Mexican named Jesus Christ had been hung for horse-stealing. Truly there is nothing in a name.

From an untitled item in the [Rosita, Colorado] Sierra Journal (January 29, 1885):

Jesus H . Christ is one of the delegates 10 the silver convention, from Durango. He ought to carry a great deal of weight with his opinions.

From "State News" in the Fort Collins [Colorado] Courier (May 14, 1885):

Jesus H. Christ has been appointed superintendent of schools in LaPlata county. It is hoped the children will not be averse to following in the meek and lowly way.

From "Wit and Humour," in the [Darwin, Northern Territory] North Australian (May 29, 1885):

Jesus H. Christ is one of the incorporators of a new railway company in Southern Colorado ; John is herding sheep in Las Animas county ; Peter is in gaol in Pueblo, Matthew was lately hung in New Mexico for murder, and Paul is tending bar in Trinidad.

From "Sunbeams," in the New York Sun (November 14, 1887):

A Boston man who has made a collection of odd names says that among them are these: "Sapphire Gunnybag and Macy Marcy Mercy Massey of Boston, John Vandanhigligenberger, a Philadelphia shoemaker; Applepie Johnson of Pittsburgh, Liberty Tadd, a Philadelphia artist; Echo Halfnose of Chicago, and Jesus H. Christ, a Philadelphia stationer.


Early instances of 'Jesus H. Christ' as a disparaging term for the religious figure

Three interesting items referring to the historical figure Jesus as "Jesus H. Christ" appear in the [Lexington, Kentucky] Blue Grass Blade (a Freethinkers publication, evidently) between August 1902 and January 1905. From "An Open Letter" in the [Lexington, Kentucky] Blue Grass Blade (August 3, 1902):

Candidly, old man, just on my own judgment I don't much believe in this story about J. C. coming back to this country, but there are so many people saying that he will, and there are so many things coming to pass that, ... if Jim were to telephone t to me from Lexington that Jesus H. Christ had got there and was registered at the Phoenix and was doing the town in an automobile and had called at our office for the last Blade, to see about Mary Mac Lane, I would swallow it just like a frog would swallow a lightning bug, because Jim has never yet told me a lie.

From "Was Jesus Christ a Good Man?" in the [Lexington, Kentucky] Blue Grass Blade (February 5, 1905):

In the churches in Lexington, Protestant and Catholic, there are, painted, and and freco, on the walls, on the walls, the letters I. H. S.

These are Latin initials. The English J, and the Latin I. are the same letter. Those three letters are, therefore, J. H. S., and they stand for Jesus H. Christ. Is it any worse in me to put the initials "J. C." that stand for Jesus Christ than it is for them to put the letters that stand for Jesus H. Christ?

And from "Rev. B. G. Morrison: Marks a Half-Baked Defence of Christianity. He Is Coming Our Way," in the [Lexington, Kentucky] Blue Grass Blade (March 19, 1905):

You also say that the three letters "J. H. S." stand for "Jesus H. Christ."

I do not so understand it. Those letters stand for "Jesus Hominum Salcator"—"Jesus, the Savior of men." But scholars, classical or otherwise, never write "Jesus H. Christ," although I have heard vulgar men use this combination for a "swear word."

A similar usage appears in a letter by W. K. to the editor of the [Chicago, Illinois] Day Book (February 12, 1916):

Superites were coming and going, bringing chairs to accommodate the enormous crowd. Suddenly a thunderous applause arose and there stood the Sirfessor in all his glory. I looked around for Jesus H. Christ, but I looked in vain.

These are profane according to the standards of the church, but in law it is not necessary that the name of God or Christ be mentioned to constitute profane swearing.

C.C. Martindale, "The Lion in Daniel's Den," in The Month: A Catholic Magazine (October 1910) declines to be specific about some of the more sordid variations on Jesus' name:

This series is by a gentleman whose benevolent countenance appears, usually above the legend "— —, The Man Without a Soul" and he has given us two pages of reasons why he "rejects Christianity." His first "reason" represents his calmer mood. "I reject Christianity because it is the evangel of self-abnegation instead of self-realization; self-obliteration instead of self-assertion:—also because it glorifies Altruism, Duty, Humility, Submission, Contentment, and other slave virtues." His alliteration keeps pace with his rising rage. He concludes (I omit the string of filthy epithets he applies to "Jesus H. Christ," and Jehovah): "Christianity is the Gospel for rainbow-chasers, snobocrats, sucklings, slaves, and sycophants, not for mortals who need neither God not master. ..."

The unspeakable source of this denounced screed is Malfew Seklew, "Rejection of Christianity," in The People's Press (December 11, 1909), although the string of filthy epithets turns out to be rather tame by today's depraved standards:

Rather would I frizzle forever in the fiery flames of Phlegethon with a rollicking roving rascal like the Devil for a companion than mercilessly masticate celestial ether, singing hosannahs to meally-mouthed, meek-eyed, mentally maimed mannikins like Jesus H. Christ, or doing the hero worshiping act, glorifying that impotent impossibility, Jehovah.

This particular periodical seems to have latched on to "Jesus H. Christ" as a suitably offensive familiar term for Jesus. The term reappears in "Reason Must Rule" in The People's Press (September 20, 1913):

We truthseekers are glad to say, that Jesus H. Christ and the Gods are all gone and man is still here, and the best of all reason tells us they will never return.

There is something mockingly mean-spirited (and therefore very modern) about this anti-reverent usage.


'Jesus H. Christ' as a profane exclamation

M. H. Small, "Methods of Manifesting the Instinct for Certainty," in The Pedagogical Seminary (January 1898) cites "Jesus H. Christ" in its list of "Profane Oaths":

By the Eternal, God, Christ, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Jesus H. Christ, Jesus God, Jesus Christ and John Jacob Astor, the Father Above, the Father of Light, the Great Father, the Merciful Father, the Gracious—, the Great—, the Holy, the Great Holy, the Good Holy, the Holy One, the Holy True, the Holy Spook, the Holy Ghost, the Lord of love, the Merciful Goodness, the Great Jehovah, the Great Lord, the jumping Jehovah, Jehovah, the Lord of Heaven, Heaven, the Lord God of Israel, the Long Suffering One.

And "Exclamations in American English," in Dialect Notes (1924) has this relevant entry under "General List of Exclamations":

Christ: Jesus —, Jesus H. —, holy jumping Jesus —, oh —, for —'s sake (all disap. or vex.)

Despite these early records of its use, "Jesus H. Christ" as an epithet is not easy to find in the wild. Aside from its occurrence in the lyrics to the 1892 folk song "Moosehead Lake," the earliest instance I could find of "Jesus H. Christ" as an epithet used by a particular person is from "Novels of the Autumn in Land and Water (September 20, 1917) [combined snippets]:

Years ago this reviewer was a temporary inmate of a hospital in a Western city of America. Among his fellow-patients was a man from Arkansas, of a considerable power of verbal expression. His favourite expletive was "Jesus H. Christ." But the Arkansas man was of no use with his pen, and having letters to write home, the reviewer constituted himself his amanuensis. In remuneration he only asked the American to cease using the Sacred Name. "Name?" exclaimed the son of Arkansas: "Jesus H. Christ! What name?" The reviewer discovered he was in the presence of a human being totally ignorant of the Gospel story, to whom the Sacred Name was merely a mellifluous ejaculation.

Unfortunately, the (British) author of this review doesn't estimate how many years ago this vignette took place, so the best we can say is that it was years before 1917.


Conclusions

Th various sources I've cited make clear that "Jesus H. Christ" was a remarked-upon personal name by 1880, an established exclamation (or profane oath) by 1892, and a disparaging way of referring to the religious figure Jesus by 1902.

I am inclined to disbelieve the historical validity of Samuel Clemens's anecdotal claim that people were using "Jesus H. Christ" as an alternative to "Jesus Christ" in 1850—chiefly because there is a 30-year gap between the supposed usage that Clemens identifies and the earliest mention of "Jesus H. Christ" that I am aware of in the contemporaneous print record.

Offering some support for Clemens's version of realty, however, is another early recollected instance, from J.C. Terrell, Reminiscences of the Early Days of Fort Worth (1906), which, although it suffers from the same fault of reaching print decades after the claimed fact that Clemens's reminiscence does, bears repeating at some length:

In 1866 I attended the first Court of Reconstruction period held in Wise County, then a part of the Sixteenth Judicial District. ... We arrived in Decatur the Saturday evening before court. Brother Shaw, a man of deep piety, of ripe age, and presiding elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was holding a prosperous camp meeting some four miles from town, and on Sunday night we all attended divine service there on pleasure and business bent, for a while some of us were piously inclined, all were impecunious, and the litigants were at the meeting. The moon was full, the weather fine.

There was present old Brother Dehart, a wealthy cattle owner, who was possessed of an article of spasmodic and intermittent religion then prevailing; for awhile he rejoined the church and prayed in public in summer; he fell off and got cold in winter. He was small of stature and was the only cattleman in Texas who wore a plug hat. He possessed an unusually loud, deep, musical voice, in volume equal to that of Mohamet's crier. He was not for prophecy or exhortation. He was powerful in prayer. Indeed, it was his religious specialty—public prayer. Dehart was noted for using mellifluous and sometimes unmeaning words; so that they had the bigness and sound it was all right with him. For instance, petroleum was advertised in the paper, but unknown to many. It had been developing during the war. We had just learned of its great value, and of the millions made by its owners. During the height of the excitement caused by the elder's eloquent description of what G. W. Paschal in the introduction to his annotated digest called "an old-fashioned Methodist hell," Brother Dehart was called upon to pray. On the way to town we tried to remember that prayer. I remember the beginning and conclusion only. It ran something like this:

"O, thou all-sufficient, inefficient, self-sufficient being, O, thou almighty, all-powerful, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, eternal, petroleum, insignificant, Lord Jesus H. Christ—eh—Jehovah God—eh—" and the conclusion, after a long breath—"And O, Lord—eh—when thou art tired and done serving thyself with us on earth—eh—wilt thou take us into that upper and better kingdom, prepared—eh—from the foundation of the earth, for the devil and his angels!"

This episode, if recounted accurately, would push the usage of "Jesus H. Christ" as a variant of "Jesus Christ" back to 1866 in Fort Worth, Texas, rendering the claim of usage in Hannibal, Missouri, circa 1850, a lot more plausible.

An instance of "Jesus H Christ" in a 1764 edition of The Book of Common Prayer is merely a coincidental juxtaposition of text elements, not a valid occurrence of the later phrase.

1

If you take it from the IHC theory that came from the Greek MrHen stated, it is most likely the that H stands for the English equivalent of "the". Since IHC is most likely Iesous (Jesus) ho (pronounced ha, meaning "the") X (C)ristos. The Jesus or Christian fish symbol is derived from the Ixthus (I believe meaning fish in Greek) Each letter stands for something that describes Jesus such as I = Iesous, X = Christos, Th = Theos (God), U = uios (son), S = soter (Savior). Those are correct I think.

As far as the H goes, there is no real clear cut answer and it could go to any of the answers presented. Personally, I don't think it comes from the IHC theory as MrHen states, unless people are wanting to add force to their remark with the the added in there. If so, that theory might hold some weight.

I have mainly heard it in movies (I remember it in Cinderella Man) and am not sure of any universal meaning. I have presumed that it means holy but could also mean the to add more 'umph' to the expletive. Hope this helps!

  • 7
    The H absolutely does not stand for ho, since ho was never written with a letter that resembles the H. It's rather a Latinate rendering of eta, which just looks just like H in its capital form. – JSBձոգչ May 17 '11 at 17:28
  • I see. Thanks for clearing that up. (Ouch on the -1 though) – Sako Kassabian May 17 '11 at 18:08

protected by RegDwigнt May 17 '11 at 21:41

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