"Jesus H. Christ": Why "H"?


Introduction

"Jesus H. Christ!"

We have all heard that expression since as far back as most of us can remember. And if you are anything like I was, you thought nothing of it (though may have found it objectionable since it's considered a mild form of profanity) and were never curious about where it came from nor why the middle initial was "H". It was nothing to us but a strictly American slang expression.

But then something happened that changed all that for me. In September 2016, I went on a cruise along the south of Spain. In Cádiz we visited a chapel and in there I noticed painted repeatedly on the wall these letters: "JHC". "Jesus H. Christ"? In Spain? That was no graffiti either, but rather a deliberately painted religious symbol (eg, the lettering was slightly calligraphic). That told me that there was more to that "strictly American slang expression" than I had thought. And true to my nature, I had to research it and my research led to writing this page.

I researched this page mostly from two Wikipedia articles:

  1. Jesus H. Christ
  2. Christogram
Since I'll be doing a lot of summarizing, you can follow those links to more information and references.


A Very Brief History

According to the Wikipedia article, Jesus H. Christ, the expression appears to be uniquely American and it was already in common use by the middle of the 19th century as evidenced by a Mark Twain story that took place when he was working as a printer's apprentice in 1847 (copied here from that article):
[Twain] recounts a practical joke a friend played on a revival preacher when Twain was an apprentice in a printing shop that Alexander Campbell, a famous evangelist then visiting Hannibal, hired to print a pamphlet of his sermon. While checking the galleys, Twain's fellow apprentice, Wales McCormick, found he had to make room for some dropped words, which he managed by shortening Jesus Christ on the same line to J. C. As soon as Campbell had read the proofs, he swept indignantly into the shop and commanded McCormick, "So long as you live, don't you ever diminish the Savior's name again. Put it all in." The puckish McCormick obeyed, and then some: he set Jesus H. Christ and printed up all the pamphlets.
The article goes on to say that the use of the expression declined, at least in print, up to around 1930, but then started being used more frequently again from 1970 to the present.

Its actual origin is lost to history as is the real reason for choosing "H" as the middle initial. However, it appears that a good explanation for that choice can be found in an ecclesiastical art form, the Christogram (AKA "divine monogram"), such as the "JHC" that I had seen in Cádiz, Spain.


Christograms

Very early in Christianity (eg, 312 CE), religious symbols were designed based on letters used to identify the Christ; eg, the Alpha-Omega (Α Ω) from the phrase "I am the alpha and the omega" in the Book of Revelation (verses 1:8, 21:6, and 22:13).

The name, "Jesus Christ", itself also became a rich source for such symbols. These became known as Christograms or divine monograms and they are actually quite common, though I doubt that most people are aware of what they are let alone that they even exist. They appear on priests' and ministers' vestments, on banners in churches, and in inscriptions and paintings. For example, in the coronation scene in Netflix' The Crown we see the "JHS" Christogram on the back of the Archbishop of Canterbury's vestment (see below).

Of course, since the New Testament was written in Greek, those Christograms are based on Greek letters, though occasionally with some transliterations to Roman letters (what modern English uses). In Greek, "Jesus Christ" is written in all caps as:

ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ
In mixed case, it is written as:
Ιησους Χριστος
The creation of Christograms draw from both ways. Spoiler alert: If you have a sharp eye, you would notice that the capital eta ("Η") looks very much like a Roman "H" and so you should already know where this is heading.

An early Christogram is the Chi-Rho from the first two letters of "ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ" ("Christ"). It is first that I had noticed only because I spotted it after having studied Greek in college. It also seems to be the most common one at present (at least in my experience) and is to be found in both Catholic and Protestant churches. It is formed by superposing the first two letters of ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, the chi and the rho, over each other, though the chi is made smaller or more commonly the rho is elongated so that the chi will not obscure the rho -- Chi-Rho.

Now that you've seen it, I'm sure you can remember having seen it before. Or at least now you will start seeing it in churches.

 

Another early Christogram is the IX monogram, which takes the first letters of both words, the iota from Ιησους and the chi from Χριστος, and superimposes them over each other thus: Iota-Chi. Here is an example from a late 3rd-century Constantinople sarcophagus:

IX.jpg

 

Another one is the IH monogram which takes the first two capital letters in ΙΗΣΟΥΣ and superimposes them over each other thus: IH Monogram. I'm sure that the similarities between this Christogram and the company logo for International Harvester are purely coincidental.

 

And then there's a family of Christograms that actually play a part in putting the "H" into "Jesus H. Christ".

These play on the first two and the final letters (or the first three letters, depending on how you think of it) of Ιησους. The Christogram that I saw in Cádiz, "JHC", falls into this category as does the one on the vestments of the Archbishop of Canterbury in The Crown, "JHS". This family is also known as IHS. Here are some examples, the first one modern and the second medieval:

Modern IHS             Medieval IHS

So why the variations?

The "J" is simple, because in Latin the "I" and the "J" were virtually interchangeable, especially when followed by another vowel in which case it became a palatal sound very similar to the initial "Y" in English (eg, yard, yellow, Yiddish, yoke, Yule). The "J" in German still behaves in the same manner, ja? So by Latinizing the iota ("Ι"), it could become a "J". Simple. Indeed, that's part of how the name of Iota;ησους got changed to Jesus -- though yet again the German pronounciation of "Jesu" is much closer to the original Koine Greek.

BTW, the interchangeability of "I" and "J" was used as a minor plot point in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) where Indy has to spell out "Iehova" and mistakenly starts at first with "J".

The Σ becoming an "S" or a "C" is a bit more involved. The "S" is simple enough, since it's just a transliteration from Greek to Roman, but the "C" needs a little more explaining. Turn your attention to the final sigma, "ς". In that form you can see the makings of the Roman "S", albeit proportioned differently. But often that lower "tail" would disappear in which case it would look like the Roman "c" (also used in English). That is why I talked of using the first two and the final letters of Ιησους, because the final sigma looks very much like a "c".

But it turns out that there's more to it than that. In the process of researching for this page, I learned for the first time of the "lunate sigma." It turns out that in the Hellenistic period (4th and 3rd centuries BCE), the Σ used for carving inscriptions was simplified to a C-like shape. That form was called "lunate" because of its crescent shape like a crescent moon. The Cyrillic alphabet used by Russian and other Slavic languages was based primarily on the Greek alphabet; the Cyrillic letter "C" for their "s" sound came from this lunate sigma.

So this IHS/JHC family of Christograms range in form from being all Greek to one Roman and two Greek letters to two Roman letters and one Greek. But in each variation, the middle initial, the eta ("Η"), remains Greek.

In researching for this page, I also learned that it's not just a coincidence that the eta, "Η", looks like the English "H", but rather yet again there's a bit more to it. According to Wikipedia (H), both Greek and Latin had gotten the letters "Η" and "H", respectively, from the Phoenicians who had gotten it from earlier sources. The Phoenicians used it to represent a sound like the English "H". At first both Greek and Latin used their versions of that borrowed letter for the same sound, like the English "H", but then in Greek its sound changed into the vowel sound we know from Ancient and Koine Greek.

As a sidenote in case you know a little about Russian, the Cyrillic letter, "H" for the "n" sound, is not related to the Greek Η. Rather it started as a borrowing of the "nu" ("Ν"), which looks exactly like the Roman "N". At some point in the process of that borrowing into Cyrillics, the end points of the cross member of the "Ν" was migrating closer to the vertical center and the cross member was becoming more horizontal. The Cyrillic "H" just represents the end result of that process which was just a temporary thing in Greek.

 

So returning to our thesis, it appears rather likely that the "H" in "Jesus H. Christ" originated from the IHC family of Christograms, especially the one that I had seen in Cádiz, Spain, "JHC", which on the surface appears to be somebody's initials, namely those of "Jesus H. Christ".

 


 

Another very common Christogram is the abbreviation, Xmas, in which the "X" is the Greek letter Chi which starts the word for "Christ", "Χριστος".

Contrary to the recent common misconception that the word Xmas stems from a secular attempt to remove the religious tradition from Christmas by taking the "Christ" out of "Christmas", it has been used as an acceptable abbreviation for nearly half a millennium.

So my usual response to such ill-conceived objections is to say that we must put the "Χ" back in Xmas.

 


Another "Explanation"

That original Wikipedia article mentions an "explanation" based on a biology joke:
Facetious etymology
In a joke made by biology students, the H is said to stand for "Haploid"; the implication being that since by the doctrine of the Virgin birth Jesus had no biological father, his genome would have been inherited entirely from his mother, the Virgin Mary. For the scientific background of the joke see Ploidy.
Continuing in the facetious nature of that joke, I find that this would raise more questions. Virgin-birth, whose scientific term is Parthenogenesis, is real and has been observed in nature occurring mainly in some invertebrates, though it also occurs in some fish, amphibians, and reptiles, and very rarely in birds. But not in mammals, though.

Depending on the actual parthenogenetic mechanism involved, if meiosis is not used then the offspring will be full clones of the mother. Since all the parthenogenetic offspring would be full clones of their mother, that would mean that they would also all be females. All of them.

Armed with that knowledge, we can clearly see a major problem that the Virgin Birth presents for basic Christian doctrine and tradition. Jesus could not have been a man, but rather had to have been a woman. Jessica Christ? National Lampoon magazine did tell her story in the December 1971 issue. Which means that Christian doctrine is a massive cover-up trying to hide that fact from us that the Christ was a woman.

 

So Then What does that "H" Stand for Again?

The Wikipedia article, Jesus H. Christ, uses as its source an article by Roger Smith (The H of Jesus H. Christ. American Speech 69:331-335, 1994).

So what middle name does the "H" stand for? "Harold", apparently:

If this is the most likely origin of the "H", there remains the issue of folk etymology; that is, the sense shared by ordinary people (not necessarily historically correct) of where the H comes from. Here, a possible origin is the name "Harold"; which indeed is mentioned by Smith (1994:32) as the basis of a variant form, "Jesus Harold Christ". The "Harold" may arise from a common misinterpretation (often by children) of the phrase in the Lord's Prayer, "Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name." This phrase can be mistakenly interpreted as specifying the name of the Deity ("thy name is ... "), rather than the true reading, which is "may thy name be hallowed". The confusion would arise from the phonetic similarity of hallowed (IPA ['hælo?d]) to Harold (IPA ['hær?ld]).

There are also a large number of variants, not just "H". Smith's conclusion from that?

For Smith, the very presence of so many spelled-out variants is part of the humor -- and blasphemy -- inherent in "Jesus H. Christ". He suggests that the H offers "the power of taking the Lord's name in vain by adding something to it that the imagination is invited to complete: What does the H. stand for? -- whatever the errant imagination proposes and the imaginer is disposed to enjoy."

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Conclusion

There are many folk explanations for that middle "H" initial. As I recall from my original research, I had independently latched onto how similar the Greek letter eta ("Η") looked like an English "H". Or maybe I had seen this from that Wikipedia article, Jesus H. Christ:
While many explanations have been proposed, the most widely accepted derivation is from the divine monogram of Christian symbolism. The symbol, derived from the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ), is transliterated iota-eta-sigma, which can look like IHS, IHC (with lunate sigma), JHS or JHC ("J" was historically a mere variant of "I"; see J).

For how this learned-sounding abbreviation could have served as the basis for vulgar slang, Smith offers the hypothesis that it was noticed by ordinary people when it was worn as a decoration on the vestments of Anglican (i.e., in America, Episcopal) clergy. The "JHC" variant would particularly invite interpretation of the "H" as part of a name.

While I do not remember that having had an influence on my thoughts on the matter at the time, I now strongly suspect that that was my lead to learning about the lunate sigma -- in university I had had two semesters of Koine Greek and later a semester of classical Greek around the mid-70's without ever having even heard of a lunate sigma.

At any rate, I personally believe that Christograms and the Greek letter Η are the most likely source of that middle initial. But there are many other stories to explain it, as in many other questions such as why West Coast Swing is danced in a slot (my personal favorite explanation is the drunken sailors on liberty in Long Beach, Calif).

 

It's always fun to try to figure things out. I hope I have given you something to think about.

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First uploaded on 2017 March 09.
Updated on 2019 November 11.