At least four major characters have the name "John" or "Jonathan", including Jonathan Strange, John Segundus, John Childermass, and John Uskglass. This is potentially confusing to a reader. In particular the name "John Segundus" threw me: it's a very odd English name, and hinted at possibly being a pseudonym, perhaps for Strange himself before the character is introduced.

John is a very common name, and while it's reasonable to know several "John"s in real life, I would expect most authors to keep character names fairly distinct for the convenience of readers.* Is Clarke hinting at something, or is it just a part of her often-enigmatic style?

[*] JRR Tolkien being a glaring exception.

  • "Strange" itself is an unusual but not unheard-of English name; the related "L'Estrange" has over a dozen entries in Wikipedia. Jun 5, 2017 at 22:17
  • 1
    "John" and "Jonathan" are two different names.
    – user14111
    Jun 6, 2017 at 0:14
  • 2
    The book is set at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The name John was even more common then than it is now.
    – Chenmunka
    Jun 6, 2017 at 8:50
  • @Chenmunka I know. It's just that many authors would pick different names, just to avoid confusion. I'm curious if there's a reason that Clarke chose such similar names, or if it's purely for verisimilitude. Jun 6, 2017 at 21:52

2 Answers 2


I was doing a little research on the etymology of John recently. (I suspect that Riordan's "Jackson" is a reference to John, where "Jack" is a form of John, and Percy Jackson is likely meant to be "Perseus Son-of-the-Grace-of-God", which is a reflection both of his parentage and his deliverance as an infant cast out to sea.)

The Online Etymological Dictionary states:

masc. proper name, Middle English Jon, Jan (mid-12c.), from Old French Jan, Jean, Jehan (Modern French Jean), from Medieval Latin Johannes, an alteration of Late Latin Joannes, from Greek Ioannes, from Hebrew Yohanan (longer form y'hohanan), said to mean literally "Jehovah has favored" or "Jah is gracious," from hanan "he was gracious."

Greek conformed the Hebrew ending to its own customs. The -h- in English was inserted in imitation of the Medieval Latin form. Old English had the Biblical name as Iohannes. As the name of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, it was one of the most frequent Christian given names, and in England by early 14c. it rivaled William in popularity and was used generically (in Middle English especially of priests) and as an appellative (as in John Barleycorn, John Bull, John Q. Public).
The Online Etymological Dictionary

My feeling is that all 4 Johns you mention are very positive and admirable characters. Usklass was certainly graced, as a foundling who rose to become a supreme King. Likewise, Strange, Segundus, and Childermass are all fairly graced.

John Barleycorn is worth looking at, as he is a very famous figure in English paganism.

Regarding "Segundus", it means "second" in Latin, thus "John the Second". I'm not sure how to interpret that in context, but there does seem to be some history regarding Latinate English names. This is an area of interest, although I know very little about it. (Offhand, I recall Stoppard's "Septimus Hodge" from the play Arcadia, which is worth seeing/reading, particularly if you are a Strange&Norrell fan.)

Regarding Jonathan vs. John. The names may be distinct but the root is the same and the meanings are similar: "God has graced" vs. "God has given".

  • 1
    Very interesting idea. I do know a tiny bit about the use of ordinals as names: it goes back to Rome, and is still sometimes used in Italy. Romans were often strikingly uncreative with praenomen (first names). The first few would be given one of a small number of family names, and others often just numbered (e.g. Octavius, the original name of Augustus Caesar). (There's some debate about whether that's exactly how it worked.) It's possible John Segundus had an ancestor named Segundus, which became a family name. Jun 7, 2017 at 20:03
  • There's also Tertius Lydgate (Middlemarch)
    – verbose
    Mar 13, 2021 at 9:16

One simple and perhaps uninteresting fact to keep in mind is the popularity of the name John in the English-speaking world. Consider this table. Granted, it contains statistics for late 16th century England and not early 19th. However, despite the time difference, it is significant that a full 20% of the surveyed names were John.

Therefore, it’s possible that Clarke was simply making the naming period-specific. You could be looking for a deeper meaning which isn’t there.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.