Happy birthday, Harold.
⁓The Voice before the Void
“Jesus H. Christ”
This article is about the phrase. For the religious figure, see Jesus.
“Jesus H. Christ” is a common phrase used to refer to the religious figure Jesus Christ. It is a vulgarism and is uttered in anger, surprise, or frustration, though sometimes also with humorous intent. It is not used in the context of Christian worship.
The earliest use of the phrase is unknown, but in his autobiography, Mark Twain observed that it was in general use even in his childhood. Twain refers to an episode from 1847, when he was working as a printer’s apprentice; Roger Smith tells the tale thus:
[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.
Smith also suggests that “Jesus H. Christ” is a specifically American profanity, and indicates that at least in his experience it is uttered primarily by men.
The frequency of use of the expression – in books only – may be traced on the Google Ngram Viewer utility. It appears to have been vanishingly rare in books up to about 1930, and began a sharp ascent in frequency starting in about 1970 and continuing to the present day.
2. Stress pattern
Multiple authors emphasize the practice of placing a strong stress on the “H,” relating it in various ways to expletive infixation. British author Michael Quinion writes:
Its long survival must have a lot to do with its cadence, and the way that an especially strong stress can be placed on the H. You might also think of it as an example of emphatic infixing that loosely fits the models of words like abso-bloody-lutely or tribu-bloody-lation.
Using the name of Jesus Christ as an oath has been common for many centuries. But the precise origins of the letter “H” in the expression “Jesus H. Christ” are obscure. 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 (Ἰησοῦς), is transliterated iota-eta-sigma, which can look like IHS, ΙΗC (with lunate sigma), JHS, or JHC (“J” was historically a mere variant of “I”).
For how this learned-sounding acronym 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 (or, in America, Episcopal) clergy. The “JHC” variant would particularly invite interpretation of the “H” as part of a name.
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 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 correct reading, which is “may thy name be hallowed.” The confusion would arise from the phonetic similarity of “hallowed” to “Harold.”
Ian Ransom reports another folk etymology in a memoir of his childhood. The context is how local adults habitually yelled at children:
I hailed from devoted Jesus H. Christ territory. As a child, “H” was a middle initial meaning “Holy” and included to honor Jesus while his name was being used to scramble young brains into malleable balls of pure fear. Most folks bellowed the simple “Jesus Christ,” so children felt privileged to hear that added “H.”
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.
4. In literature
In J.D. Salinger’s celebrated novel The Catcher in the Rye, the main character Holden Caulfield utters the expression when he has just learned that his womanizing roommate Stradlater will be going out on a date with his old friend Jane Gallagher:
“How’d she happen to mention me? Does she go to B.M. now? She said she might go there. She said might go to Shipley, too. I thought she went to Shipley. How’d she happen to mention me?” I was pretty excited. I really was.
“I don’t know, for Chrissake. Lift up, willya? You’re on my towel,” Stradlater said. I was sitting on his stupid towel.
“Jane Gallagher,” I said. I couldn’t get over it. “Jesus H. Christ.”
The intensity of Holden’s feelings becomes fully clear only later, after Stradlater returns from the date and Holden launches an ill-judged fist fight.
“Jesus H. Christ” is the first line of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; uttered by Martha, it is the opening salvo of a drama in which the characters express their feelings with ferocious directness. In the early 1960s, the term was considered sufficiently potent as a vulgarism that, for a Boston production, censors required that it be replaced by a euphemism, for which Albee chose “Mary H. Magdalene.”