The Grammarphobia Blog

‘Jesus H. Christ,’ redux

Q: You err in your post about the “H.” in “Jesus H. Christ” by saying the monogram IHS comes from the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus. IHS has nothing to do with the spelling of “Jesus” either in Greek or Latin. It is the abbreviation of In Hoc Signo (vinces)— In This Sign (thou shalt conquer). Further, the Latin name is Jesus, not Iesus.

A: It’s a common but erroneous belief that the monogram IHS is derived from In Hoc Signo (vinces) or several other Latin expressions. It originally showed up in medieval Latin and Old English as a manuscript abbreviation of the Greek name for Jesus: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ in uppercase letters and Ἰησοῦς in lowercase.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, because of “subsequent forgetfulness of its origin, it has often been looked upon as a Latin abbreviation or contraction, and explained by some as standing for Iesus Hominum Salvator, Jesus Saviour of men, by others as In Hoc Signo (vinces), in this sign (thou shalt conquer), or In Hac Salus, in this (cross) is salvation.”

The earliest OED citation for the abbreviation is from the Lindisfarne Gospels (circa 950), an interlinear Latin-Old English manuscript. In the Latin text of Matthew 3:13, iħs is used as an abbreviation of “Jesus”: Tunc uenit iħs a galilaea in iordanen (“Then came Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan”).

As for the spelling of “Jesus,” it was iesus in classical Latin. There was no “j” in the classical Latin alphabet.

For any readers who missed our earlier post about the source of the “H” in the expletive or exclamation “Jesus H. Christ,” we say the most likely theory is that it comes from the monogram made of the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus.

The first three letters (iota, eta, and sigma) form a monogram, or graphic symbol, written as either IHS or IHC in Latin letters. The IHS version is more common than IHC, which The Catholic Encyclopedia refers to as a rare “learned abbreviation.”

The symbol, which is also called a Christogram, can be seen in Roman Catholic, Anglican, and other churches. It’s also the emblem of the Society of Jesus, the religious order of the Jesuits.

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.

Subscribe to the Blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the Blog by email. If you are an old subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.