Q: Do you guys have any idea who the “Johnny” is in “Johnny-come-lately”?
A: The phrase “Johnny-come-lately” originated as a 19th-century American expression for a newcomer or a novice. It’s now also used for an upstart, a late adherent to a trend or cause, and someone who’s late for an event.
There’s no particular significance in the use of the name “Johnny” here.
Since the 17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, this familiar diminutive of “John” has been used “humorously or contemptuously” to mean “a fellow, chap.”
For example, the OED cites Allan Ramsay’s poem And I’ll Awa’ to Bonny Tweedside (1724), in which Edinburgh is described as a place “Where she that’s bonny / May catch a Johny.”
Over the years, both in the US and in the UK, people have used the name “Johnny” as a generic term for a guy. (We wrote blog postings in 2007 and 2009 about a similar usage, “Tom, Dick, and Harry.”)
This generic use of “Johnny” is found in many familiar phrases whose origins are explained in the OED.
For example, “Johnny Reb,” a Northern term for a Confederate soldier, emerged during the American Civil War.
And “Johnny-on-the-spot,” for someone who’s always ready and available when needed, was first recorded in an American novel, Artie (1896), by George Ade.
In Britain, “Johnny raw” and “Johnny Newcome” were early 19th-century phrases for a rookie, a newcomer, or a raw recruit. Those were at least the spiritual forerunners of the American phrase “Johnny-come-lately.”
OED citations indicate that “Johnny-come-lately” first appeared in The Adventures of Harry Franco (1839), a humorous novel by Charles Frederick Briggs, a journalist and former sailor.
Here’s the quotation from Briggs’s novel: “ ‘But it’s Johnny Comelately, aint it, you?’ said a young mizzen topman.”
(Briggs’s claim to fame is that he gave Edgar Allan Poe a job on his short-lived magazine, the Broadway Journal, in 1845.)
The phrase may have originated in America but it didn’t stay there.
One OED citation is from the Christchurch Press in New Zealand, which offered this definition for its readers in 1933: “Johnny-come-lately, nickname for a cowboy or any newly-joined hand or recent immigrant.”
Finally, this 1972 example is from the former BBC publication The Listener, in a reference to the state of Utah: “Here man himself is a Johnny-come-lately.”
[Update, Jan. 19, 2015. A reader asks how to form the plural of “Johnny-come-lately.” All the standard dictionaries we’ve checked say that both “Johnny-come-latelies” and “Johnnies-come-lately” are OK. We like “Johnny-come-latelies.”]
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