Monday, March 1, 2010

My Jonathan Chronology for Johnnycakes

The name for the simple bannock form of cornbread which came to be known as johnnycake in America evolved from a British prototype known as jonakin or jonikin. An alternative explanation for the name johnnycake rests on the use of John, Jonathan, or Johnny to indicate the common man, and the corn bread as the common man's bread. Yet another explanation attributes the word to a corruption of journey cake. I do not find satisfactory either of these latter two explanations, despite the Oxford English Dictionary weighing in on the Jonathan connection.

The term Jonathan to describe an American was a relative latecomer, and its common usage postdates the appearance of the cornbread and besides the term Jonathan was preferred over "Johnny." We do not hear of Jonathan cakes. I offer this chronology to support my assertion.

1675: Benjamin Thompson, in a poem "New England's Crisis," "Then times were good, merchants car'd not a rush, For other fare than Jonakin and mush."

1724: Hugh Jones in The Present State of Virginia refers to a local as a Jonathan.

1739: South Carolina Gazette reports on "New iron plates to cook Johnny Cakes or griddle bread on."

1765: Samuel Deane's diary quote, "So we breakfasted on tea and johnny cake, without butter, and fled for our lives."

1780s: Royal Tyler develops the character Jonathan as a New England bumpkin in his play "The Contrast," and Brother Jonathan as the American version of John Bull appears in the last quarter of the 18th century and into the early 1800s. (Discussion of this appears in Joseph Conforti's Imagining New England, 2001, p. 155-156).

I'd welcome comments on this, particularly information on the use of the word jonikin in the British Isles. Other opinions? Prove me wrong?


  1. Another kind of bannock is a jannack, but I never thought of it in the jonnycake track until now. Justin at Coggeshell Farm in RI has been looking into this very thing. He wass making Mrs Simmons baked jonnycakes in front of the fire on a board when I was there last October.

  2. Everytime I see this work jonakin and start thinking etymology, although many people suspect obscure Indian origin, looks to me a lot like Dutch. Many words end in the diminutive kin, chen, like mannekin, pumpkin. A wild guess, I admit. But I'll look into it further. Ken

  3. Apparently the colonial Dutch called New Englanders jannekin, meaning Johnnies.

  4. Ah, yes, the Dutch - the plot thickens: jannack following Kathleen's note above, in the OED, dates to 1500 which precedes the Dutch in the Northeast -- and refers to an oat flat bread. However, the --iken ending sure sounds like a Dutch contribution -- is this a hybrid word of some sort? The Dutch hear jannack and think/say jannekin in a cross-up of the food and the eater?

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