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Captain My Captain: He Just Might Get You High Tonight

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 24, 2012 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | October 24, 2012 |

There’s power in a name you know, and as I was rereading The Baroque cycle recently, it occurred to me that the King of Vagabonds, L’emmerdeur, Half-cocked Jack Shaftoe himself is a Captain by trade and is therefore a Captain Jack. If you are quicker than I, you may have made the connection earlier, and if you are less easily impressed than I am by small patterns that may or may not have any meaning, you may have discounted it as an irrelevancy. In any case, at this point, due to the vague similarities in personality, I began mentally reading all of Jack Shaftoe’s narration of his own adventures in Johnny Depp’s drawl.

Of course there’s also Captain Jack Harkness, with a character not completely at odds with the personalities of these two Jacks. And naturally there’s the Billy Joel song as well, which even I cannot stretch to fitting any sort of thesis. And as I started to shuffle through web pages, there was the realization that the boat captain on the Booze Cruise episode of “The Office” was also named Captain Jack.

Wikipedia added a few more Captain Jacks to my list:

1. A Hawaiian naval commander.
2. An Indian chief.
3. It’s the name of a German Europop band, and their best known single.
4. A 1999 British comedy I’ve never heard of.
5. An alligator in a single episode of “Leave it to Beaver”
6. An alligator in a single episode of “The Simpsons”
7. Captain Jack Aubrey of Patrick O’Brian’s series of naval novels.

But there is no unifying theme of the Captains Jack, no summary of that name’s cultural import throughout history. I can’t help but have a mental itch that there’s some cultural connection, some subtle meme of characterization going on that I can’t quite put my finger on. But where there is a perhaps imaginary pattern, one can immediately leap to graphs to try to justify whether the pattern actually exists or not.

I turned to Google Ngram, which if you haven’t played with it before, can immediately suck away hours of your life. It is a tool to graph the percentage of whatever words or phrases you input as a function of the total number of words in Google Books for the year in question. All the graphs below embiggen when clicked.

Just to verify that I’m not insane, these first two graphs are instances of the name Jack along with all the other American naval and army ranks (i.e. Admiral Jack, Private Jack, etc.)



There is no competition. If someone writes about a character named Jack who holds military rank, he will almost certainly be a captain.

Next, I decided to check whether other Captains were as popular, or if Jack was something special. I checked the top ten English language names for men in conjunction with the title Captain (so Captain James, Captain John, etc.). Jack doesn’t too well in this comparison. But, Jack is only the 53rd most common name for men in the English language, so the fact that he holds his own in this company (he’s the lower purple curve, not the upper one) is still pretty admirable. And when one considers that Jack is a common nickname for both James and John (the top two curves), then Jack is getting more Captainy by the day.


The lesson? If you want your kid to grow up to be a famous military hero in literature, name him Jack. And since that’s a name that swings both genders these days, feel free to give it to your daughters too.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.