Who shot John

Tee many martoonies?

Dear Word Detective: Do you know where the term “whostruckjohn,” meaning, to me, a little white lie (as in “I caught a 12 foot fish.” “Aw, you’re just giving me a whostruckjohn”) came from? I have also heard it used in the sense of “a mess,” as in “It looks like whostruckjohn in here.” It seems to be local to the Washington DC/Baltimore area. There was a local Baltimore rock band called Who Struck John, and there is a jazz composition by some famous jazz artist (sorry I can’t recall who, right now) called Who Struck John; the jazz artist is from D.C. I learned the term from my mother, who is from nearby Frederick, Maryland — Linda Conner.

Whoa. That’s a heckuva question. There are some questions that are fairly easy to research (or to which I already know the answer), and the only challenge is explaining the answer in a logical fashion (which often isn’t as easy as it should be). And then there are questions like this one, where there seem to be clues everywhere I turn, but no definitive answer, and trying to pin down a coherent history or even a logically consistent definition of the term is like trying to nail smoke to a wall. All of which is a long-winded way of saying “Don’t get your hopes up.”

What I’ve found in stumbling around on the trail of “whostruckjohn” and its relatives is a wispy tangle of sightings, but we might as well begin with what we do know with some certainty. “Who shot John” (or “who struck John” or “who hit John”) was a slang term in the Old West for moonshine or other illicit homemade liquor of exceedingly high strength and poor quality. The sense of the phrase is that one drink of “who shot John” would render the person instantly unconscious and leave his companions standing over the recumbent figure, jokingly wondering “Who shot John?” The phrase and its variants appear in several glossaries of cowboy slang, and apparently made it into the script of the 1976 Western “The Shootist,” in which John Wayne (in his final film role) says, “I hope you’re smart enough to know that who-hit-John don’t go with guns.” Apparently “who shot John” and its relatives were also used to mean an advanced state of inebriation. Robert Hendrickson, in his “Whistlin’ Dixie: A Dictionary of Southern Expressions” (1993), defines “drunker than who shot John” as meaning “uncontrollably drunk.”

OK so far, but now things get weird. At some point, “who shot John,” et al., came to be used in a wide variety of senses unconnected to drink, such as to mean “nonsense” (e.g., your “little white lie” about the fish), extreme commotion and confusion, or just “a total mess.”

Just how those senses evolved is unclear, but they may hark back to the mid-19th century, when a children’s game called (or involving the phrase) “who shot John” was popular in Britain. The phrase was apparently adopted by the British military as slang for “finger pointing,” attempts to assign blame in the wake of failure. This use of “who shot John” eventually became popular in Washington, DC (where finger-pointing is the name of the game), and, according to the late William Safire, President Richard Nixon was known to be fond of the phrase (saying, in 1977, “And so, that’s the human side of story, which . . . I know that you and the press, you can’t be interested in that. You can only be interested in ‘Who shot John.’ Well go ahead.”).

It could be argued that a scene of great confusion (“a total mess”), perhaps involving profound drunkenness, would lead naturally to “finger pointing” and the invention of “nonsense” or “white lies” by those accused of responsibility, which would connect the major senses of the phrase. Or the “drunk” sense could be unrelated to the other uses.

There are many other tantalizing clues floating around out there about “who shot John,” along with indications of the strangely persistent attraction of the phrase. As you note, there have been several bands named with versions of the phrase, and Duke Ellington used it as the title of a composition in 1947. Maybe the phrase “who shot John” is just hanging around until somebody manages to definitively explain it.

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