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Q From Furqan Nazeeri: After about an hour Googling johnny-on-the-spot, for a person who is on hand and ready to perform a service, I can’t seem to find anything that seems a reasonable history. Perchance, do you know the history of this phrase?

A Perchance I do, with the help of an unknown writer on the New York Sun in April 1896, who penned an article on it which was syndicated among local newspapers (I found it in the Steubenville Daily Herald of Ohio, which is always to hand).

The piece is headed “JOHNNY ON THE SPOT A New Phrase Which Has Become Popular in New York”. Its author says “The expression ‘Johnny on the spot’ has come into popularity very suddenly”. This agrees with the Oxford English Dictionary, which dates its genesis in print to the same year (though it must be somewhat older in the spoken language).

The writer explains where it came from: “The grammatical genesis of ‘Johnny on the spot’ cannot be traced very clearly, but the phrase certainly originated from the longer and less expressive one, ‘Johnny is always on the spot when wanted.’ ... The expression is to some extent a variation or rather a continuation of that other phrase, ‘He gets there.’” Johnny here must be a general name for any young male and doesn’t refer to a real person.

He goes on to give a pen portrait of the type: “A ‘Johnny on the spot’ is a man or youth who may be relied upon to be at a certain stated place when wanted and on whose assured appearance confident expectation may be based. It is not sufficient that an alert and trustworthy individual, to be thought deserving of the name ‘Johnny on the spot,’ should restrict his beneficent activity to the matter of being at a certain place when needed. He must, in addition, render such service and attend to such business when there as the occasion may require, and such a ‘Johnny’ must be on the spot not merely to attend to the business of others, but also to look after his own. Hence an individual who is prompt and farseeing, alive to his own interests and keenly sensible of means for promoting his own advantage is a ‘Johnny on the spot.’”

However, the writer goes off the rails when he tries prediction: “It will probably go out of popularity after some pretty hard usage in paragraphers’ columns, variety theaters, campaign speeches and cheap plays in an equally unconventional way, but until a successor is found it is likely to be in pretty general use hereabout.” It’s still commonly in use thereabouts, and in lots of other places too. It would seem that, having found a good phrase, people stayed with it, though many of the implications of a person equally eager to further his own chances as to give assistance have vanished.

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Page created 23 Jul 2005