Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Oh, johnny

I know that hospital gowns hereabouts are familiarly known as "johnnies" -- and if any garment calls out for a familiar name, it's this one -- but until I heard from Sara B., looking for more information, I had no idea this word was a New England regionalism.

"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 and here.


Jed Waverly said...

From the Cape Cod Times 3/25/10:

Why is a johnny called a johnny?

A quick search of the Web turned up this information from the American Dialect Society Mailing List (

A johnny, also called a "johnny coat," "johnny-shirt," "johnny gown" or "hospital johnny," has been called "the great equalizer" because it puts all hospital patients on an equal footing with the staff.

Obviously, the gown was originally designed to maximize access to the patient's body by medical staff. But, according to the site, several word-smithing nurses say it got its name because going to the "john" is a lot easier in one of these nonrestrictive gowns.

That makes as much sense as any other explanation.

Jan said...

Hi Jed,
The link in your comment should be -- it's the ADS list the paper was trying to point to. But those comments don't get us any further, factwise; "as good as any other explanation" isn't the same as "true." There is interesting material at ADS-L, though, about Canadian use of "johnny" -- something Sara B.'s original note also mentioned.

Fritinancy said...

From Pat Barker's novel "Ghost Road" I learned that "johnny" is a British slang term for "condom"--or at least it was during World War I.

Jed Waverly said...

Sorry about the misprint in the link. I must have hit a key in the transfer which eliminated the middle of the link. Lots of over-sensitivity these days...even on my computer's keys! Thanks for pointing it out.

Unknown said...

I'm from Boston and when I was in the hospital for two weeks this month I automatically said Johnny several times when asking for new gowns (They had me wearing Double XXs and I'm Small/Petite so it came up often.) I couldn't find anyone who was familiar with this regionalism although there were several people from Massachusetts there and this part of Florida had a lot of retired Bostonians.

Heather said...

Raised in Connecticut and as far back as I can remember the hospital gown handed to me was called a johnny. I am now undergoing treatment in Texas - same deal - I asked for a "johnny" and nobody knew what I was talking about. :)

I came to your thread and discovered it was a regionalism. Interesting . . .