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Jesus H. Christ is a common phrase used to refer to the religious figure Jesus Christ. The phrase occurs in vernacular speech, where it is used as an expletive (uttered, for example, in anger or frustration) or else with humorous intent. It is not used in the context of Christian worship.
The expression dates to, at the latest, the late 19th century, although according to Mark Twain it was already well-established by 1850. Twain refers to an episode in his youth when he was working as a printer's apprentice; Smith (1994) 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 suggests (1994:331-2) 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.
Multiple authors emphasize the practice of placing a strong stress on the "H", relating it in various ways to expletive infixation. Thus 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, ΙΗϹ (with lunate sigma), JHS or JHC ("J" was historically a mere variant of "I"; see J).
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 (i.e., 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 (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 [ˈhæloʊd]) to Harold (IPA [ˈhærəld]).
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, the Virgin Mary. For the scientific background of the joke see Ploidy.
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