the Johnson Bar's busted (Was Re: 1941 Quartermaster Corps lingo)

Gregory {Greg} Downing gd2 at IS2.NYU.EDU
Fri May 14 17:21:46 UTC 1999

At 12:54 PM 5/14/99 -0400, Dennis R. Preston wrote:
>I suspect the second of your interpretations since my father did not
>have the male genitals sense of "Johnson" (although, as you point out, the
>latter sense is old, but in my experience it is more common in the
>African-American community in the US).

Good point, and of course I was just tossing out immediate hypotheses
without placing weight on them. But one usage/semantic point to bear in mind
is that not all users of a locution are aware of every one of its resonances
or all of its background. So ruling out, or in, some sexual overtone, or any
other aspect of the locution's background, would have to be grounded in the
collectible cites. However, as a jocular (?) mechanical term used that
was/is apparently employed mainly by males, it is difficult to rule out a
sexual jest prima facie.

I kind of share your general sense that "johnson" is more common in AA, but
note this -- the most recent update of Partridge DSUE has a citation from
Canada in the early 1860s for "johnson" in this sense. OED2 has the same
cite. OED2 gives no others 19C cites for "johnson" in this sense.

I noticed from another post on this thread that there might actually *be* a
serious (rather than a sarcastic or jocular) use of "Johnson bar." I.e., it
isn't always used jocularly for a whachamacallit or for something that
doesn't really exist. In fact, in checking OED2 I see an entry for "Johnson
bar," with this info:

[Origin unknown.]
A long heavy lever used to reverse the motion of a steam locomotive. Also
transf. (see quot. 1971).
1930 Railroad Man's Mag. II. 471/1 Johnson bar, reverse lever on a locomotive.

The subsequent OED2 cites (which run down through 1971) are also from
glossaries, with the exception of a citation showing actual usage in context
from a 1940s railway magazine.

Greg Downing/NYU, at greg.downing at or gd2 at

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