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There's a reason "J" is worth 10 points in Word feud, it's a quite uncommon letter.

According to Lewand, arranged from most to least common in appearance, the letters are: etaoinshrdlcumwfgypbvkjxqz Lewand's ordering differs slightly from others, such as Cornell University Math Explorer's Project, which produced a table after measuring 40,000 words.

Here's a graph measuring the frequency of "J" in words: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:English_letter_frequency_(alphabetic).svg

Here's a graph measuring the frequency of "J" in names: http://home.uchicago.edu/~jsfalk/misc/baby_names/images/initial_all.png

Sure, there's a lot of words with a "J" in them (not many relatively), but there's very few words starting with "J". Yet, there's an abundance of names starting with "J". Here, I'll list as many as I can from the top of my head.

Name starting with a J: Jack, Jackie, Jackson, Jill, Janet, Jeremy, Jeremiah, Jake, Jesus, Jacob, Jock, John, Johnny, Jon, Joe, Joel, Janus, Jerry etc.

Words starting with a J: Jar, Jigsaw, Job, Jacked, Jest, Jester, Jeopardize, Jeopardy, Jaguar, Jitters, Jumbo, Jet, and probably some more.

Now, is there a reason for this. Heck, is there even a great difference between the number of names starting with a "J" and words starting with a "J"?

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    »Sure, there's a lot of words with a "J" in them (not many relatively), but there's very few words starting with "J".« This is not true. Initial position is by far the most frequent for the letter j in English, for various reasons (most importantly that it most frequently comes from Old French where /ʤ/ was the outcome of Latin initial /j/, while non-initial /j/ was mostly lost instead). Also, several of the names you mention are variants of one name, and at least one (mine, as it happens) is rare enough in English that most are completely unfamiliar with it and don’t know how to pronounce it. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 23 '18 at 22:56
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    Your charts use entirely different units and can't be compared. Letter frequency in dictionary words tells you nothing about frequency of usage, and vice versa. For example, the letters Z and X are two of the least common letters in the dictionary, but (in the USA) are frequently seen because of the words EXIT (on highway off-ramps) and pizza (a popular food). You would need to compile a list of unique names in common usage to compare against, so that you're actually comparing the same units. – GalacticCowboy Apr 24 '18 at 11:44
  • @JanusBahsJacquet yan-ous or yarn-ous? Or perhaps eye-arn-ous? – TripeHound Apr 24 '18 at 12:54
  • @TripeHound You're getting dangerously close to the word you-rin-us there... – Mr Lister Apr 24 '18 at 13:28
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    I've wondered about this exact same question and my thought was that since the Hebrew letter for J is Y (yod) and this letter is considered by some to be the "seed" of the Hebrew alphabet: It is the most basic/fundamental letter and therefore the most commonly used for a name. – JacobIRR Apr 25 '18 at 16:56
150

A lot of the "J" names in English are from the Bible and would have originally been written with an initial I in Latin, as the letter J did not get started until the Renaissance. In modern transliteration of Hebrew these names are written with an initial Y. For example, "Yeʻhoshua" for Joshua, "Yaʻaqov" for Jacob, or "Yirmeyāhū" for Jeremiah/Jeremy/Jerry. The use of /dʒ/ sound in initial uses of I/J comes from Early Old French, through Gallo-Roman influences.

The reason why there are more names than common nouns pronounced this way is that Old English lacks word-initial /dʒ/ and Latin does not have a lot of word-initial I/J followed by a (second) vowel, while Latinized Hebrew has many names starting with I/J. However, some Old French common nouns do start with initial I/J and these properly became pronounced /dʒ/ and spelled with J: for example jeopardy, from jeu parti, or joy from joie.

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    Excellent indeed. It is worth noting, however, that the citation of J names exaggerates the quantity somewhat by including what are variants upon the same name. Also, what counts as a name in English is rapidly changing with the populations of Anglophone countries. – Tuffy Apr 23 '18 at 23:12
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    "But in the Latin alphabet, Jehovah starts with an I" – Nick T Apr 23 '18 at 23:25
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    @Xanne: James and John are both Hebrew names, as Avery mentions. James is יעקב and John is יהונתן. Note that both do start with the letter yod י. – dotancohen Apr 24 '18 at 8:30
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    @AkivaWeinberger: James is Old French/English, derived from Yaakov/Jacob through a tortuous process involving B → M in Latin Jacobus → Jacomus (compare Italian Giacomo) and then losing C (compare Spanish Jaime). – Tim Pederick Apr 24 '18 at 15:43
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    @AkivaWeinberger The adjective for the reign of James the Ist/VIth is Jacobean, which is a useful clue. – origimbo Apr 24 '18 at 18:34
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A further point is that many of these names are essentially the same name. Your list of 18 names:

Jack, Jackie, Jackson, Jill, Janet, Jeremy, Jeremiah, Jake, Jesus, Jacob, Jock, John, Johnny, Jon, Joe, Joel, Janus, Jerr

Broken down into 9 groups:

  • John, Johnny, Jon, Jock, Janet
  • Jack, Jackie, Jackson ("son of Jack"). Very closely related to John (sometimes treated as a diminutive)
  • Jeremy, Jeremiah, Jerr
  • Jake, Jacob
  • Jill
  • Joe
  • Joel
  • Janus
  • Jesus

I suspect these were selected arbitrarily but they illustrate my point well. Other obvious groups include:

  • Julian, Jillian, July, etc. -- you've got Jill from this one
  • Joseph, Josephine, Jo, etc. -- your Joe
  • James, Jim, etc. -- related to Jacob
  • Joshua etc.
  • Jennifer etc.

Many of these reached English through multiple routes, the most obvious being John/Jacques/Jack, but this group also relates to the initial I/J shift discussed in other answers as demonstrated by Ian/Iain/Ivan (and even Evan for further confusion).

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    James comes from the same root as Jacob, so it fits in one of your existing groups. – origimbo Apr 24 '18 at 12:31
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    Note also that "Jesus" and "Joshua" also come from the same root. – Martin Bonner Apr 25 '18 at 12:11
  • @MartinBonner I hadn't really given Jesus much though (or Janus for that matter), having not come across either as an English name, but that's a good point. – Chris H Apr 25 '18 at 12:22
  • You haven't shown that names not beginning with J are not subject to the same proliferation of variants. – user234461 Apr 27 '18 at 12:34
  • Janus = Ian = John, as far as I know. – yo' Apr 27 '18 at 12:40
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As pointed out in one of the answers above, the commonest names in English are biblical: John/Johan/Jean/Juan, James/Jacob, Joshua/Jesus, Joseph, Judah/Judas, etc., all of which are Hebrew in origin, and begin with the syllable Jah or Yah, meaning "God". There are also common names of Roman or Greek origin, like Julius, Jason, Justin, etc. There are even some names of Germanic origin that begin with J, like Jeffrey.

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    The 'j' of 'Jacob', 'Joseph', and 'Judah' is an imperfective verb prefix, unrelated to the 'j' of 'John' and 'Joshua'. – ruakh Apr 24 '18 at 6:48
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    @ruakh: All the names you mention are from Hebrew, and all start with the letter yod י in Hebrew. Jacob: יעקב, Joseph: יוסף, Judah: יהודה, John: יהונתן, Joshua: יהושוע. They all have literal meanings in Hebrew, and are not just a collection of sounds. In order: "follower", "collector", "Jewish", "God's giving", "salvation". – dotancohen Apr 24 '18 at 8:33
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    @dotancohen: Um, I speak Hebrew, but thanks for trying. (I'm not even sure why you're directing your comment at me; what part of "imperfective verb prefix" made you think "just a collection of sounds"?) By the way, 'John' is actually thought to come from 'Yokhanan' rather than 'Yonatan' (so related to grace rather than giving); and translating 'Judah' as 'Jewish' is anachronistic and backwards (Jewish -- יהודי -- literally means "of/from יהודה"). – ruakh Apr 24 '18 at 16:04

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