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What Does It Mean to Give Your "John Hancock"?

By Maggie Worth
Updated May 23, 2024
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John Hancock was an early American politician and a signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. His was the first signature on the document, the largest signature and the most readable. From this evolved the idiomatic expression "to give your John Hancock," which simply means to sign your name to something. The phrase is used throughout the U.S. and can be applied to virtually anything that requires a signature.

The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776, was the document with which the newly formed United States of America formally asserted its independence from England and, specifically, from the rule of the king of England. In it, Jefferson summarized the grievances that fueled the secession and briefly described the rights the country intended to assume as a free and independent entity. It was the precursor to successive documents, including the Constitution of the United States.

The document was signed by 56 U.S. dignitaries. These included Jefferson and Hancock, along with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Edward Rutledge and Samuel Chase. John Hancock was the first to sign; his signature appears at the top center of the bank of signatures. Not only is his signature larger, his handwriting is significantly more ornate and ostentatious than any other on the document.

Signers of the Declaration included those from Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut. John Hancock was one of five signers from Massachusetts, but his signature appears separate from his fellow statesmen because of the way he chose to sign. It is said that the size of the signature was an intentional message from Hancock to the king.

Hancock was a member of the Boston Assembly and delegate to and president of the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts. He was elected to the Continental Congress and also was elected president of that organization. He was a member of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention and served as the governor of Massachusetts until his death.

Eventually, the distinction of Hancock's signature on the Declaration of Independence gave rise to the phrase "to give your John Hancock." A person might be asked to do so when signing any document, be it a formal contract or a credit card receipt. The term "John Hancock" can be used interchangeably with "signature" or "autograph." A similar euphemism asks a person to give his "John Henry."

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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Discussion Comments
By Buster29 — On May 09, 2014

I've heard people ask for my "John Henry" a few times, but I don't know how that started. I'd seen the John Hancock signature on my history book cover, but the only John Henry I could think of was the one in the song about a hammering railroad worker.

By Inaventu — On May 08, 2014

The first time I ever heard someone ask for my "John Hancock" on a receipt, I thought he was actually asking me to sign that name instead of my own. He laughed and said it was just an expression. I think I was ten years old at the time, and I wasn't used to signing things on my own. Now I say it all the time whenever a customer needs to sign their credit card receipt.

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