"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 form of profanity) and were never curious about where it came from nor why the middle initial was "H". It was nothing but a strictly American slang expression.

But then something happened to me that changed all that. In September 2016, I went a cruise along the south of Spain. We visited a chapel in Cádiz and in there I noticed painted on the wall these letters: "JHC". "Jesus H. Christ"? In Spain? That was no graffiti either, but rather a deliberately painted religious symbol. That informed 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.

I'm drawing most of my information 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 in 1847 (that story is quoted in the article). Its usage 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). Of course, the name itself, "Jesus Christ", 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.

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 should already know where this is heading.

An early Christogram is the Chi-Rho. It is first that I had noticed only because I had studied Greek in college. It also seems to be the most common one at present and is to be found in both Catholic and Protestant churches. It is formed from the first two letters of ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ, the chi and the rho, which are superimposed 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.

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 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, "JHS". This family is also known as IHS. Here are some examples:

Modern IHS             Medieval IHS

So why all the variations? The "J" is simple, because for a long time 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 "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" and "I" look the same anyway), it could become a "J". Simple.

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 Latin, but the "C" needs a bit more explaining. Turn your attention to the final sigma, "ς". In that form you can see the makings of an "S", albeit proportioned differently. But often that lower "tail" would disappear in which case it would look like our "c". That is why I talked of using the first two and the final letters of Ιησους.

But there's more to it than that. I just learned 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. The Cyrillic alphabet was based primarily on the Greek alphabet; the letter "C" for their "s" sound came from this lunate sigma.

So this IHC 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 one, the middle initial, the eta, remains Greek. While it appears to just be a coincidence that the eta, "Η", looks like the English "H", again there's a bit more to it. According to Wikipedia (H), Latin had gotten the letter "H" from an earlier form of the eta when it still represented the "h" sound and before it had changed into the vowel sound we know now.

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.


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 the joke, I find that this would raise more questions. Virgin-birth, whose scientific term is Parthenogenesis, is real and has been observed in nature. Mainly occurring in some invertebrates, it also occurs in some fish, amphibians, and reptiles, and very rarely in birds. 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. In addition, if the species uses the XY sex-determination system (which we humans do use) then since the offspring would have two X chromosomes then they will be female. All of them.

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


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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First uploaded on 2017 March 09.