The Grammarphobia Blog

Here’s Johnny

Q: What do you call it when you add a name before a country of origin to make a sort of derisive term like “Jack Burma,” “Johnny Turk,” “Johnny Reb,” “Billy Yank,” and so on?

A: Terms like these have been referred to variously as “national personifications,” “collective pseudonyms,” or “collective nicknames.”

They were never the names of real people; they’re just symbols that collectively represent a nation or its citizens.

In military use, some names refer fondly to a country’s own forces, but some represent the enemy. 

During the American Civil War, for example, Northerners referred to Confederate soldiers as “Johnny Reb” (short for “rebel”), while Southerners called Union soldiers “Billy Yank” (for Yankee).

After the war, such terms lost their bitterness. The Oxford English Dictionary cites one such usage that appeared in a trade magazine, Realty & Building, in 1948:

“Colonel John was a Johnny Reb who delighted in telling of the exploits of the boys in gray.”

But the tradition of military or national nicknames goes much further back. 

In Britain, according to the OED, sailors have been familiarly called “Jack” since the 1600s and “Jack Tar” since the 1700s.

More recently, British soldiers have been called “Tommy”—short for “Thomas (or Tommy) Atkins”—since the 19th century. 

As the OED explains, “Thomas Atkins” wasn’t a real person’s name, but “a familiar name for the typical private soldier in the British Army; arising out of the casual use of this name in the specimen forms given in the official regulations from 1815 onward.”

Some of the documents used other names, the OED says, “but ‘Thomas Atkins’ being that used in all the forms for privates in the Cavalry or Infantry, is by far the most frequent, and thus became the most familiar.” The use of “Tommy” for an ordinary soldier first appeared in print in 1881.

We’ve written before on the blog about the use of “Johnny” or “John” as a generic term for a guy or a fellow.

Since the 18th century, the name “John Bull,” according to the OED, has personified “the English nation; Englishmen collectively; the typical Englishman.”

Early in the following century, the name “Johnny (or Jean) Crapaud” was first used to mean a Frenchman, Oxford says. (Crapaud is French for “toad.”)

Similarly, “Johnny Turk” originated in the World War I era as a name for “a Turkish soldier” or “any Turk,” the OED says.  

The Russian equivalent of “John” is “Ivan,” and the use of “Ivan” (or “Ivan Ivanovitch”) to mean a typical Russian soldier, Oxford says, dates from the 1890s.

As for German soldiers, we can trace to World War I the use of “Jerry” or “Fritz” to refer to them, whether individually or collectively. 

We’ll end with “Jack Burma,” a British term for the Burmese. A search of Google Books suggests that it originated in the 19th century during the British occupation of Burma.

In The Burman: His Life and Notions (1882), for example, Sir James George Scott describes how the Burmese travel in bullock carts that “are roomy, and allow ‘Jack Burma’ and his family to loll about as they please.”

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