Why Do People Say "Jesus H. Christ," and Where Did the "H" Come From?

IHC monogram: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Background: iStock/vectortatu
IHC monogram: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain. Background: iStock/vectortatu

Spencer Alexander McDaniel:

Well, first, let us talk about where the name "Jesus Christ" comes from. The name Jesus is an Anglicized form of the Latin name Iesus, which is in turn a Latinized form of the ancient Greek name Ἰησοῦς (Iēsoũs), which is, in turn, a Hellenized form of Jesus's original name in ancient Palestinian Aramaic, which was יֵשׁוּעַ (yēšūă‘), a shortened form of the earlier Hebrew name יְהוֹשֻׁעַ (y'hoshuaʿ), which means "Yahweh is Salvation."

y'hoshuaʿ is the original Hebrew name of the hero Joshua, the central figure in the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament. Consequently, yēšūă‘ was one of the most common male given names in Judaea and Galilee during the early part of the first century CE when Jesus was alive. There are even multiple other people with the exact same name mentioned in the New Testament, including Jesus Barabbas in the Gospel of Mark and Jesus Justus, an apostle mentioned in the Book of Acts and in the Pauline Epistles.

Although people today often treat the word Christ as though it is Jesus's last name, it is actually not a name at all, but rather an epithet (i.e. a descriptive title). The English word Christ is an Anglicized form of the Latin word Christus, which is, in turn, a Latinized form of the ancient Greek word Χριστός (Christós), meaning "anointed one." The word Χριστός is used in the New Testament as a Greek translation of the Hebrew title מָשִׁיחַ (māšîaḥ), which has roughly the same meaning.

In antiquity, the title of māšîaḥ was not exclusively specific to any one particular person; instead, it was a generic title that could be applied to anyone who was regarded as fulfilling the role of God's anointed. For instance, in Isaiah 45:1, the title is applied to Cyrus the Great, the shah-in-shah of the Achaemenid Empire, who freed the Jews from captivity in Babylon after he captured the city in 539 BCE and allowed them to return home to rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem.

Now that we have that covered, we can proceed to explain where the phrase "Jesus H. Christ" most likely comes from. Most Christians are familiar with the Chi Rho monogram. If you are not familiar with it, here it is:

It is composed of the capital forms of the Greek letters chi ⟨Χ⟩ and rho ⟨Ρ⟩, the first two letters of the Greek word Χριστός, superimposed over each other. It is a sort of clever abbreviation that was used by early Christians to signify "Jesus" without having to write out his full name.

There is, however, another monogram used to represent Jesus that many people are less familiar with: the IHϹ monogram. Here is one form of it:

IHC monogram
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While the Chi Rho monogram is composed of the capital forms of the first two letters of the Greek word Χριστός, the IHϹ monogram is composed of the first three letters of Ἰησοῦς, which, if you recall, is the Greek spelling of the name Jesus.

The first letter is the Greek letter iota ⟨I ι⟩, which looks like the Latin letter ⟨I⟩ and makes the [i] sound as in the word machine, or sometimes the consonantal [j] sound as in the word yellow. The second letter is the Greek letter eta, which makes the long E sound, but which looks like the Latin letter H ⟨H η⟩. The third and final letter is the lunate sigma ⟨Ϲ ϲ⟩, a form of the Greek letter sigma which looks extremely similar to the Latin letter ⟨C⟩ and makes the [s] sound as in the word soft.

These are the first three letters of the name Ἰησοῦς, the Greek spelling of the name Jesus used in the original Greek text of the New Testament. At some point, however, presumably sometime in the early 19th century, ignorant Americans who were accustomed to the Latin alphabet and who knew nothing of the Greek alphabet mistook the letters of the IHϹ monogram for the Latin letters J, H, and C. They concluded that the J must stand for "Jesus" and the C must stand for "Christ," but then no one could figure out what the H stood for. Apparently, some people just concluded, "Hey, I guess H must be his middle initial!"

Eventually, the phrase "Jesus H. Christ" became something of a joke and it began to be used as a mild expletive. In his autobiography, the American author Mark Twain (a.k.a. Samuel Langhorne Clemens; lived 1835–1910) observed that the phrase was already in common use when he was still a young lad. Twain tells a humorous anecdote of how, in around 1847, when he was apprenticed to a printer, the evangelical preacher Alexander Campbell, the leader of the "Restoration Movement," ordered the printer to whom the young Samuel Clemens was apprenticed to print some pamphlets for one of his sermons.

Unfortunately, the printer accidentally dropped a few words and, in order to avoid having to reset three whole pages of text, made space to fill in the missing words by abbreviating the name "Jesus Christ" to simply "J. C." at one point in the text. The pious Reverend Campbell, however, insisted that the printer must not "diminish" the name of the Lord; he insisted that he needed to include the full name, even if it meant resetting three whole pages of already set text. The printer reset the text, but, because he was annoyed by the reverend, instead of changing the text of the pamphlet to say simply "Jesus Christ," he changed it to say "Jesus H. Christ."

It is important to note that Mark Twain's story is not the origin of the phrase, but it is an early piece of evidence of the phrase being used.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Why Are Poinsettias Associated with Christmas?

iStock
iStock

Certain Christmas traditions never seem to go out of style. Along with wreaths, gingerbread cookies, and reruns of A Christmas Story sits the poinsettia, a red-tinged leafy arrangement that’s become synonymous with the holiday. Upwards of 100 million of them are sold in the six weeks before December 25.

Why do people associate the potted plant with seasonal cheer? Chalk it up to some brilliant marketing.

In 1900, a German immigrant named Albert Ecke was planning to move his family to Fiji. Along the way, they became enamored of the beautiful sights found in Los Angeles—specifically, the wild-growing poinsettia, which was named after Joel Roberts Poinsett, the U.S.-Mexican ambassador who first brought it to the States in 1828. Ecke saw the appeal of the plant’s bright red leaves that blossomed in winter (it’s not actually a flower, despite the common assumption) and began marketing it from roadside stands to local growers as "the Christmas plant."

The response was so strong that poinsettias became the Ecke family business, with their crop making up more than 90 percent of all poinsettias sold throughout most of the 20th century: Ecke, his son Paul, and Paul’s son, Paul Jr., offered a unique single-stem arrangement that stood up to shipping, which their competitors couldn’t duplicate. When Paul III took over the business in the 1960s, he began sending arrangements to television networks for use during their holiday specials. In a priceless bit of advertising, stars like Ronald Reagan, Dinah Shore, and Bob Hope were sharing screen time with the plant, leading millions of Americans to associate it with the holiday.

While the Ecke single-stem secret was eventually cracked by other florists—it involved grafting two stems to make one—and their market share dwindled, their innovative marketing ensured that the poinsettia would forever be linked to Christmas.

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