‘Johnny’

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While this card, published for the 8th Field Survey Company of the Royal Engineers, displays the relief and delight of surviving the war and overcoming the forces of Turkey and Bulgaria, it raises the question of who is ‘Johnny’? The OED defines the term as ‘Applied humorously or contemptuously to various classes of men’, and the examples given tend generally to be downward-looking: Byron’s ‘The English Johnnies who had never been out of a Cockney workshop before’, or the Daily News’ ‘An idle and vacuous young aristocrat, of the class popularly known as ‘Johnnies’’ (1889). The list of slang expressions given ranges from the familiar ‘rubber johnnies’ to names for penguins, toilets, and, in compounds, newcomers and novices. But there might also be some power in low-status ‘johnny’ jobs: background research on the culture of chorus girls and ‘knuts’ from the early twentieth century reveals the role of the ‘stage-door johnny’, controlling visitors’ access to changing rooms.

 

Throughout the nineteenth century ‘Johnny’ came to be associated in English with the ‘other’, the foreigner, or often the enemy: the OED lists, ‘Johnny Reb’ as the Union soldiers’ name for a Confederate soldier, ‘Jonny Crapaud’ – Partridge and others note that this became ‘Crapose’ – as the Canadian slang for a French-speaking Canadian, or the French nation as a whole; ‘Johnny’ was a soldier, presumably Indian, of the (British) Indian Army, a Gurkha, an Arab, or a Breton onion-seller. As regards this last, in the 1960s the term ‘shoni onions’ was still in use in South Wales, though by then there were few of the seasonally migrant onion-sellers still working the valleys. Green’s Dictionary of Slang adds ‘Johnny Chinaman’ to the list of foreigners, while Collins online  gives ‘a person from a country other than those which make up the United Kingdom’ as the definition of ‘Johnny foreigner’. ‘Johnny Dago’ seems to be a more recent term. Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1972) supports the documentation of ‘Johnny’ from the seventeenth century as a familiar term for a man, but it appears that the implications of the word began to indicate a ‘looking down’ relationship from around the end of the eighteenth century, as it began to be applied to foreigners (including by Spaniards to the English), workmen, soldiers and sailors.

 

The OED gives 1919 as the first printed documentation of ‘Johnny Turk’, in Punch; Punch was indeed a great documenter of soldier slang, but often, inevitably, catching up with innovations in slang terms; ‘Johnny Turk’ as a recognisable nickname survived beyond the Second World War, with a horse with that name racing in 1954. In a further twist Turkish soldiers seem to have bounced the name back – Matthew Wright in Shattered Glory (2010), amongst many others, reports on Allied soldiers being called ‘Johnny Kikrik’ [any comments on this are very welcome]. Partridge in the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English also notes the term ‘Johnny Squarehead’ from the First World War. Fraser and Gibbons (1925) give ‘Johnny’ as ‘A Turk’, and note that ‘as a Service nickname it dates from the Crimean War’; five years later Brophy and Partridge added that ‘Johnny’ was applied rarely to Germans. Green’s Dictionary of Slang again supplies the following from Australian E G Dodd’s diary from March 1918: ‘This afternoon Johnny got a bit vicious and was pounding pretty heavily. The boys seem to think the Bosche is going to bring something off by way of an attack. … Johnny has been pasting Vermelles and Philosophe with big stuff.’

 

This leaves the Bulgarian soldier on the right in the postcard. Bulgarians received an inevitable nickname, clearly indicated in this postcard, but ‘Johnny Bulgar’ was more likely a civilian term.  BulgarH C Owen, editor of The Balkan News, criticising the Bulgarians’ treatment of prisoners of war in a footnote in Salonica and After – the Sideshow that Ended the War (1919): ‘It is true that our soldiers of the B.S.F., with their usual “sportsmanship” — that baffling quality which no other country quite understands – made the very best of Johnny Bulgar in every way, and were always ready to hail any good point they found in him as opponent, whether of courage or anything else’. Note the contrast between British ‘sportsmanship’ and ‘Johnny Bulgar’. Owen’s view that ‘there is a strain of very real savagery running throughout the Balkans and the Bulgar has an extra dose of it’ was no doubt the view of many prisoners of war, and expressed the sentiment that the vanquished nations should pay, both morally and financially, for the war.

 

The use of ‘Johnny Turk’, ‘Johnny Squarehead’ and ‘Johnny Bulgar’ is more complex than at first appears. It patronises, it creates an ‘other’, but it is also familiarising, like ‘Old Man Fritz’ or ‘Brother Boche’. Here it is worth asking – what do we want to do with language? For the soldier in the trench the desire to manage fear brought the use of terms that took the power and dread out of the situation – ‘Johnny Turk’ was less of a threat than ‘the Turkish Army’. For the civilian commenting on outrage and retribution, while there was clearly a reference to familiarity, ‘Johnny Bulgar’ was primarily a term of disparagement.

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‘… our first intimation that Johnny Bulgar had suffered some serious disaster.’ From The Great War … I Was There, magazine series 1938-9

 

 

 

 

 

 

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