Who shot John refers to a popular idiomatic phrase widely used in the United States, with meanings changing from scenario to scenario.
The most widespread meanings, that have been attributed to the phrase are moonshine or hooch, that renders its drinker immobilized, like someone who’s been shot.
“Who shot John” may also be used as a synonym for mess, both in a physical manner and in the sense of white lies, mainly used for finger-pointing and making up excuses.
While the exact origin of “Who shot John” is impossible to trace, it is widely claimed to have originated from the mid 1800’s Southern United States, in the first mentioned sense, referring to homemade liquor that would render its drinker dead, as if shot.
In the Southern states this sense of the phrase still lives on, and it is from this, that the second meaning of “Who shot John” derived; namely a mess – a state which is well known by moonshine enthusiasts.
“Who shot John” is also claimed to have been a popular children’s game in the British Isles during the late 19th century, from which the phrase migrated on to the lexicon of the British military for finger pointing, to evade responsibility in case a Clusterfuck is created.
“Who shot John” spread to various other areas of the United States, where it was primarily used for moonshine as well as a mess, both in terms of appearance and in the sense of a tangled story, or nonsense.
By the 20th century, the idiom became widespread enough to appear in popular culture, with musicians such as Duke Ellington naming their songs after it.
“Who shot John” was first defined on Urban Dictionary on November 23rd, 2004, with many entries to follow.
- Nytimes.com – ON LANGUAGE; Who Shot John?