The Names of the Nameless: Move Over, John Doe and John Q. Public

Jun 19th 2014

What do you call a nobody -- or an anybody? In American English, we have plenty of answers. You'll hear nameless males referred to as:

John Doe
John Smith
John Q. Public
Joe Schmo
Little Johnny

All are anonymous, yet none are synonymous. There are many ways to be nameless.

John Doe is most often a specific individual whose identity is either unknown (as in the case of a body found at an accident scene) or concealed (as in the case of confidential legal proceedings). Relatives: Jane Doe, Richard Roe.

John Smith is a flexible generic individual, often encountered in hypothetical situations or as a placeholder to indicate where a name should go. Relatives: Jane Smith.

John Q. Public is a representative member of American society. As the the typical man on the street, he is a probabilistic mix of social strata and frequently encountered in policy discussions. Relatives: Jane Q. Public, John Q. Taxpayer.

Joe Schmo is the put-upon American everyman; the hard-working, hard-luck side of John Q. Public. Relatives: Joe Blow, Joe Sixpack, Average Joe, Every Tom, Dick and Harry. Notably, he has no direct female counterpart.

Little Johnny is a representative American child, presumed to be part of a representative American nuclear family. Relatives: Little Timmy, Little Susie, and the rest of the Mid-Century Normative Child gang.

Then there are more specialized anybodies. "The Joneses" are hypothetical friends and neighbors who set community standards. "Alan Smithee" was, for decades, the anonymous director of any film disowned by its creator. You can even make a case for Spartacus as a name of anonymity via solidarity (or at the very least, a good Starbucks prank).

Even these placeholder names only hint at the possibilities. It seems to me we could use a generic name for telemarketers. Or maybe more than one; "Cassie Cause" is a different sort from "Mickey Mortgage."

What's more, the translation of John to Jane doesn't seem a satisfactory representation of generic women. Couldn't we put some more femininity in our anonymity? And as American names become more diverse, all these Johns and Joes become more retro than everyman. Surely it's time for a generic name for the non-generically-named generation.

What kinds of nameless individuals do you think we need, and what would you un-name them?


June 19, 2014 3:26 PM

Interesting, Laura!

I love the name Jane for a daughter but my husband objects because he thinks it is too "plain Jane" or anonymous. I love the no frills, classic look and it is not at all common like it once was.

John and Jane once were representative of the American population. Both names exude a feeling of white, upper-middle class, conservative, people living in 20th century. Jane less so than John, but she is an easy counterpart. Perhaps Mary would have been a more reasonable name to use based on popular usage. Mary Doe doesn't have the same ring to it, though.

I think these phrases are still convenient for use today because there is no way to pinpoint the "average" american today. We are culturally diverse and using so many names that even the most popular names do not represent a large portion of the children born. The most popular names of all time still tend to lean towards what is conservative. Perhaps because conservative parents much prefer a tried and true name. 

James & Mary Jones would be my pick for an anonymous name. The two most popular names ever used and one of the most common last names. These aren't very well representative of babies born today, or even our general population though. 


June 19, 2014 4:39 PM

Don't forget "Joe the Plumber" from the 2008 presidential election.  He supposedly stood for the average American worker.

June 19, 2014 11:15 PM

On Big Bang Theory, Sheldon is asked to guess the name of someone, and he guesses Mohommed Lee (IIRC), since the first is the most common first name globally, and second the most common surname - the joke, of course, is that something that makes statistical sense as being most common won't really be.  This is in international average, though, and this column is about the U.S. - John is probably a legitimate guess for a very basic name, though surely increasingly less so.  Jane, I don't know.  What I do know:  my parents (b. 1950's) are named John and Jane.  So this all sounds about right to ME (me, a Jennifer from the 70's)...

June 20, 2014 2:08 AM

Norwegian versions:

Ola Nordman and his female counterpart Kari Nordman — the stereotypical Norwegians, I'd say they're closest to John/Jane Q. Public.

Navn Navnesen — literally “Name Nameson”, a name placeholder used e.g. on credit card images in advertising. Love the sound of this one, it's almost plausible.

June 20, 2014 2:11 AM

Oh! Back to the English-speaking world, there are also Jack and Jill, always mentioned together, since the 16th century (according to Wikipedia).

June 20, 2014 2:20 AM

And then there are the generic names that native English speakers attach to stereotypical foreigners, such as Fritz for a German and Boris for a Russian (note: Boris is not a popular name in Russia, but was #7 in 1920-1930s). Can anyone remember more such nation-marker names?

June 20, 2014 5:37 AM

This is of course much older, and not quite a nobody, but since the 19th century the name 'Tommy Atkins' has been used for a british soldier. French and commonwealth soldiers refer to the Brits as 'Tommies' and it became especially prevalent in WWI. Apparently Germans used to shout for 'Tommy' across no man's land if they needed to speak to a British soldier! It was famously immortalised in Kipling's poem 'Tommy':

'O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";

But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins," when the band begins to play.'

June 20, 2014 5:41 AM

José deservedly for Spaniards and perhaps Jean-Paul for the French? And lets not forget the more general 'Johnny foreigner' ;)

June 20, 2014 8:36 AM

p.s. a global take on "names of the nameless" is coming soon!

June 20, 2014 11:27 AM

I visit a website regularly for work whose webmaster's name is Josh Human. They're partners of ours, so I know it's his actual name, but every time I see "if you have any questions or concerns, contact Josh Human at," I think it's a placeholder name for just a second.

June 20, 2014 1:57 PM

So at some point I guess it has to switch to Aidan Doe and Sophia Q Public? 

June 21, 2014 9:27 PM

I'm shocked, shocked I tell ya', that the conversation has managed to go so far with out a mention of Sally Homemaker. I believe there could even be a case for calling her the female counterpart to Joe Schmo, in a retro kinda way.

June 22, 2014 12:23 PM

There's also G.I. Joe. How could we forget?

By JayF
June 23, 2014 10:56 AM

In my neck of the woods, I've heard Joe Bagadonuts. I think it might be a less offensive name than Joe Blow, or a reference to a regional love of doughnuts... Though neither of these are complimentary nameless names...


June 23, 2014 6:49 PM

Ava or Madison for the everyday girl.

Connor the everyman.

June 24, 2014 12:14 AM

I think it's actually a good thing that these generic names are out of date---because having a generic name as your real name is no picnic. For example, you may often encounter people who don't believe it's your name (including authorities), or people (like those reading a resume) may perceive you as boring or faceless for having a generic "placeholder" name  See, for example, this article about a man named John Doe:

Generic names should sound common but actually be relatively rare. It's the same as in movies or books where all characters' telephone numbers start with 555---a convention that saves real people heartache while allowing viewers to imagine a real number. One exception I see would be for first names combined with obviously fake last names, like Taxpayer or Cardholder. Then I'd pick from among the most common names for the targeted demographic, like Jason Taxpayer or Jennifer Cardholder. 

June 24, 2014 5:44 PM

Also Dorky McDorklesen, Chatty McChattistein, etc. for a more characteristic-driven name; though sometimes these refer to a specific person--a la the doctors McDreamy, McSteamy, etc. from early in Grey's Anatomy--I've also seen them used generically.

@another_jennifer, I was actually thinking that some Lee name would be a good choice--wasn't there a post a while ago about how this is the least racially-divided name? Something like Jordan Lee even gets you gender-neutral, although then you get into the problem mentioned by @heliotrope.

@undergrand, I think any of the Jean- names work for France, but the granddaddy is probably still Pierre. Maybe Jean-Pierre?

June 24, 2014 10:16 PM

Not mentioned as yet: everyone's favorite random non-acquaintance, So-and-So. And then there's Everyman who has been around since the Middle Ages.

June 25, 2014 2:39 AM

Apropos of this thread, tonight's episode of Rizzoli and Isles featured a young woman with amnesia. Isles, the medical examiner, had to check her clothes and person for clues to her identity, but was reluctant to call her Jane Doe because that is the name used for unidentified female corpses. So she estimated the young woman's age as 25, went back to the most popular name of the supposed year of birth and, voila, Jessica Doe.

June 25, 2014 6:04 AM

Reminds me of Joe Bloggs ... with a british slant.

June 27, 2014 11:24 AM

Joe Schmoe? I always thought shmoe was a euphemism for the vulgar word schmuck. I would have no hesitation saying Joe Blow (even though "blow" also has vulgar connotations in English), but I'd feel a slight twinge at Joe Schmoe. 

As for Yiddish-related generic names, at my job, where we worked with the elderly, my standard term for a generic client was Mrs. Schmierkase (Mrs. Creamcheese). I learned Schmierkase as a generic name from my parents, but I have no idea if this standard in Yiddish. To refer to her standard family caregiver - typically a daughter or daughter in law? Kathy Krantz-Cake. This is mainly because my grandmother always called me and my cousin Susan, "my little krantz cake". Kathy is such a typical name of our generation - women born in the 1950s and 1960s, taking care of their elderly parents - and it just makes a lovely alliteration with krantz cake, don't you think?

July 4, 2014 7:48 PM

@nedibes ah Jean-Pierre is a good shout. The round-the-world-names-of-the-nameless post to come should be interesting!

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