Wednesday, March 24, 2010
"I am a nurse who for years has tried to find the origin of the word," she wrote. "I was told this was due to doctors training in Mass. General where the term was first used." The origin story she'd heard was that the open-back gown allowed easy use of the toilet, or "john," an explanation so simple it's almost guaranteed to be false. (And think about it: Does anything else about the johnny suggest that it's designed for the patient's comfort?)
But the Boston part is true, says the Historical Dictionary of American Slang: Johnny is "Common in Boston area hospitals from ca1900, but apparently unknown elsewhere."
Johnny is of course a very common word, both as a name and as a slang term: Among the senses HDAS gives it are a young fellow, long underwear, an Army recruit, a fool, a servant, a Chinese man, and a policeman, and that's before you start on the Johnny Rebs and stage-door Johnnies and Johnny collars. So I searched for "hospital johnnies," which turns up in Google News cites starting in 1950, almost always in New England newspapers, though one 1953 mention is in the St. Petersburg Times.
I would expect johnny to have spread a bit, if only among hospital staff, given the number of doctors exported by New England medical schools. But if there's a record of its coinage (and I wouldn't bet on it), someone else will have to dig it up. If you have a clue I can pass on to Sara B., please share it.
And yes, aren't you glad to know you can sew your own hospital johnny? The pattern is for sale at Butterick.com and here.