Q: What does the “H” stand for in “Jesus H. Christ”? It’s obviously not a middle initial, so why is it there?
A: We’ve seen a lot of theories about the source of the “H” in “Jesus H. Christ,” one of many expletives or exclamations that use a name for God. The most likely suggestion is that it comes from a monogram made of the first three letters of the Greek name for Jesus.
In Greek, “Jesus” is ΙΗΣΟΥΣ in uppercase letters and Ἰησοῦς in lower. The first three letters (iota, eta, and sigma) form a monogram, or graphic symbol, written as either IHS or IHC in Latin letters.
Why does the monogram end with an “S” in one version and a “C” in another? The sigma has an “S” sound, but it looks something like a “C” in its lunate (or crescent-shaped) form at the end of a lowercase word.
For example, the sigma in Ἰησοῦς is σ in the middle and ς at the end. In classical Latin, Jesus is iesus.
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.
As far as we can tell, “Jesus H. Christ” first appeared in writing in the late 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the February 1885 issue of Wilford’s Microcosm, a New York journal about science and religion.
The publication cites an apparently humorous use of the expression in an unnamed Texas newspaper: “At Laredo the other day Jesus H. Christ was registered at one of the hotels.”
The next example we’ve found is from The Creation, a satirical verse play in the June 13, 1885, issue of the Secular Review, an agnostic journal in London. Here’s an exchange between the Adam and Eve characters in a scene set in the Garden of Eden:
Wife. O Lord! How them apples is pecked!
And fruit that is pecked by the birds
Is always so nice, I am told.
Man. If Jesus H. Christ hears your words,
He’ll tell, and his Father will scold.
The expression was undoubtedly used in speech earlier. Mark Twain recalled hearing it when he was a printer’s apprentice in Missouri in the mid-1800s.
“In that day, the common swearers of the region had a way of their own of emphasizing the Saviour’s name when they were using it profanely,” he says in a section of his autobiography dictated on March 29, 1906.
Twain recounts an incident in which a fellow apprentice shortened “Jesus Christ” to “J.C.” in a religious pamphlet, and when chided for using an abbreviation, “He enlarged the offending J.C. into Jesus H. Christ.”
The Oxford English Dictionary says the phrase “Jesus H. Christ” is used as “an oath or as a strong exclamation of surprise, disbelief, dismay, or the like.” The dictionary’s earliest citation is from a 1924 issue of the journal Dialect Notes: “Jesus Christ, Jesus H. Christ, holy jumping Jesus Christ.”
The OED doesn’t comment on the origin of the expression, but the Dictionary of American Regional English and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang say it’s probably derived from the monogram IHS or IHC.
DARE’s first example is from that 1906 entry in Mark Twain’s Autobiography, which was published in 1924, 14 years after the author’s death, with an introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine.
The earliest Random House example is from a folk song dated 1892, “Men at Work,” collected by Alan Lomax in Folk Songs of North America (1960). To give the expression its proper context, we’ll expand the citation:
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?”