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A Scotsman invented the English everyman called John Bull

Posted in Historical articles, History, Interesting Words, Language on Saturday, 30 March 2013

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This edited article about John Arbuthnot originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 216 published on 5 March 1966.

John Bull postcard, picture, image, illustrationPostcard showing a typical John Bull making the climb from war to peace and happiness by Dudley Buxton (after)

It is rather surprising to discover that John Bull, the national nickname for the typical Englishman, was not invented by an Englishman, but by a Scotsman, John Arbuthnot, who died on February 27, 1735.

Born at Inverbervie, Kincardineshire in 1667, Arbuthnot came to London in 1691 and set up as a teacher of mathematics. In 1696 he took a medical degree and in 1705 was appointed physician to Queen Anne. More important still, he became a close friend of Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and other literary figures of the day.

In 1712, the British people were becoming weary of the long war with France which had lasted since 1702. Many believed that Marlborough, the English commander, was simply prolonging the war for his own profit and glory. Arbuthnot expressed the popular discontent in a series of pamphlets called The History of John Bull.

This represented the nations at war as tradesmen involved in a never-ending lawsuit. The British tradesman was John Bull, a simple open-hearted and bluff fellow although sometimes inclined to outbursts of bad temper. Charles II of Spain was a Lord Strutt; Louis XIV of France, Lewis Baboon; and the Dutchman was Nicolas Frog. Marlborough was represented as Humphrey Hocus, a cunning attorney whose only interest was to make the lawsuit last as long as possible and make a fortune from the fees.

Arbuthnot’s pamphlets had a tremendous influence on public opinion which eventually forced the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht which in 1715 ended the war.

Since then, John Bull has always been the popular name for an Englishman. Political cartoons showed John Bull as a stout, ruddy-faced, matter-of-fact fellow wearing tail coat, leather breeches and top boots. He generally had a cudgel in his hand and a bulldog at his heel.

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