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John Henry & John Hancock

Posted by ESC on August 09, 2001

In Reply to: Sign Your John Henry posted by ESC on August 08, 2001

: : I have heard of the phrase sign your John Hancock
: : And this is in reference to the way he signed in big and bold letters
: : But I also have heard of sign your John Henry is this in reference to
: : John Henry being a very big man and hero?
: : Can you help?

: I think "John Henry" as a phrase meaning signature is simply a mistake. People get their Johns mixed up. But I'll check further and see if there's more to it than that.

I stand corrected...

JOHN HENRY/JOHN HANCOCK - "As every schoolboy knows, the biggest, boldest and most defiant signature on the Declaration of Independence was scrawled by John Hancock of Massachusetts. So completely did it overshadow the autographs of the other founding fathers that the term 'John Hancock' has become synonymous with 'signature' and each of us at the one time or another has spoken of 'putting his 'John Hancock' at the bottom of a document. In the West, a half century and more later, the phrase became altered to 'John Henry,' and nobody knows quite why. Suffice it that, in the words of Ramon Adams's excellent collection of cowboy jargon, 'Western Words': 'John Henry is what the cowboy calls his signature. He never signs a document, he puts his 'John Henry' to it!' Incidentally, there seems to be no connection between the John Henry of cowboy slang and the fabulous John Henry of railroad lore, who was so powerful that he could outdrive a steam drill with his hammer and steel, This legend has been traced to the drilling of the Chesapeake and Ohio Big Tunnel through West Virginia in the 1870s - substantially later than the first use of John Henry by cowpokes of the Old West." From Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988).

On a personal note, I have been to the site in West Virginia and have seen the statue of John Henry. Such a well-traveled person am I.

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