Tuesday, February 9, 2021


Caution: risque content ahead.


Amongst numerous other names for the male organ, is the name “Johnson”. Why? See comments below.

(As a related issue, I was discussing this post with my wife, Kate, before posting it. I mentioned other names such as John Thomas and Willy and she mentioned that there is no naming for women’s bits. Why is that so? That is a topic for reader comments or a future Bytes.)

So why Johnson? Here are some explanations . . .


Online Etymology Dictionary

johnson (n.)

"penis," 1863, perhaps related to British slang John Thomas, which has the same meaning (1887).


From Euphemania by Ralph Keyes:

Johnson is the last name most often used for the male sex organ. According to one theory, this slangy euphemism originated with the name of a large railroad brake lever. Lexicographer Eric Partridge thought it was more likely an abbreviated version of Dr. Johnson, a onetime synonym for “penis” that Partridge said might be based on the assumption that ‘there was no one Dr. [Samuel] Johnson was not prepared to stand up to.’ Working under the verbal restraints of his times, Partridge said this synonym was for the ‘membrum virile.’


From Jonathon Green, Green's Dictionary of Slang (2010)

Johnson meaning the penis, appears to be part of a group that uses a proper name, in this case based on 'John', to give a slang name to the male genitals. Others of the type include John Henry, John Thomas, John Willie, Master John Goodfellow, Sir John and Uncle John. And there is John itself:

1914 T.S. Eliot ‘Fragments’ in Inventions of the March Hare:

O daughter dear daughter I think you are a fool
To run against a man with a john like a mule.

The first use of johnson is mid-19th century:

1863 W. Cheadle Journal 2 Feb.:

Bitterly cold; neck frozen. Face ditto; thighs ditto; Johnson ditto, & sphincture vesicae partially paralysed.

The first uses of this 'proper name' form seem to stem from the 16th century jockum, here used in one of the earliest collections of criminal slang terms:

c.1566 Harman Caveat for Common Cursetours:

There was a proud Patrico and a nosegent, he tooke his Jockam in his famble, and a wapping he went.

Jockum led to jock, which is still found, typically in old school rap lyrics, although its original use is much older and serves for both sexes:

a.1790 H.T. Potter New Dict. Cant (1795):

jock private parts of a man or woman.

Jack, as used for penis, also appears to have similar roots in a proper name, but in fact puns on the standard English jack, a device for lifting. Thus:


1604 Dekker Honest Whore Pt 1 I i:

[He] taught her to play upon the Virginals, and still his Jacks leapt up.


Some related comments:

John Thomas: 

This expression for penis has been known in print since the 1870s but had probably been in use before then. There is a story that there was a real John Thomas about 1400 who was extremely well-endowed, but it seems to be just a legend. It probably derives from the use of the same phrase as a generalised term for a servant).

It was at one time common to address any man whose name one didn’t know as John, particularly a servant (much like a Glaswegian will use Jimmy today, and others will use Jack). There are dozens of expressions recorded that contain John as a generalised name, such as “John Thomson’s Man” for an uxorious husband, “Johnny Foreigner” for anyone from outside Britain, “John Trot” for a bumpkin, “John Tuck” for a Chinese mandarin, and “John Barleycorn”, the personification of the barley from which whisky is made.

John: American slang term for a toilet

John: slang term for a prostitute’s client

Johnny: slang term for a condom.



One final observation:

Someone once told me that in Scandanavian countries, swear words and curses are based on religion, whereas in Western countries they are based on sex, apparently grounded on sex being thought to be inherently dirty. I don’t know if that’s accurate, reader comments?

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