Just your average Svensson: placeholder names in English and other languages
If you follow politics, you will have noticed that politicians often invoke the cliché of the ‘man in the street’. You may have heard them referring to the average Joe, Joe Bloggs, John Public, Joe Sixpack, etc. when talking to an audience, addressing everyone and no one, rather than someone in particular.
The English language has several of those placeholder names and, more often than not, they denote a male person – implying that the average person is a man, the everyman. There’s also the famous John Doe – the name for an unidentified person that you would come across in a legal context. Here, a female equivalent actually exists: Jane Doe.
If you want to talk about ordinary people in general, you may also call them Tom, Dick, and Harry in English, although the Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable notes that this Victorian term is particularly attributed to people unworthy of notice. It further cites Brown, Jones, and Robinson as a term for the ‘vulgar rich’.
Of course, placeholder names also exist in other languages. Just like in English, they are often simply formed with the most common names that exist in each respective country. There are, nonetheless, some examples from other languages that are worth exploring a bit further, so let’s find out who your average Joes are in Italian, Swedish, and German…
In Italian, Tom, Dick, and Harry translates to ‘Tizio, Caio, e Sempronio’, which is the shortened form of ‘Tizio, Caio, Sempronio, Mevio, Filano, e Calpurnio’ used in current speech. If used alone, tizio, commonly written with a lowercase letter at the beginning, is also a generic name for a single unspecified male person. The female version would be tizia.
The three names Tizio, Caio, and Sempronio originate from legal jargon and apparently first appeared together in the works of Irnerio, an Italian jurist who taught Roman law at the University of Bologna in the 12th century. While those were also common male names in ancient Rome, they are believed to refer to three Roman politicians from the 2nd century BC: Tiberio Gracco, his brother Gaio Gracco, and their father Sempronio Gracco.
The Italian version of the average Joe is a certain Mario Rossi, with Mario and Rossi being the most frequently used first and last names in Italy. The moniker can often be found in Italian credit card advertisements and some might also remember it from the 1960s children’s TV show Mr. Rossi (Italian: Signor Rossi), in which the main character represents the Italian everyman.
A phrase similar to Tom, Dick, and Harry can also be found in Swedish: Andersson, Pettersson, och Lundström combines three typical Swedish surnames to denote a group of people whose names are either unknown or irrelevant. Another common family name in Sweden is Svensson. It forms part of the term Medel-Svensson, which is a reference to the average Swede.
Then there’s kreti och pleti – an expression that also exists in German (‘Krethi und Plethi’). This one is perhaps derived from Hebrew Cherethites and Pelethites, apparently a group of elite mercenaries employed by King David that are mentioned in the 2nd Book of Samuel.
Besides Krethi und Plethi, another – and perhaps more well-known – German translation of Tom, Dick, and Harry is Hinz und Kunz. The expression apparently dates back to the 13th century and couples the former short forms of Heinrich (‘Hinz’) and Konrad (‘Kunz’), which were the names of many German rulers in the High Middle Ages. When a large number of people started naming their sons after those kings, it led to an increased use of Heinrich and Konrad. This way, Hinz und Kunz became a pejorative synonym for ‘everybody’.
Otto Normalverbraucher is another placeholder name; it denotes the German everyman (literally: ‘Otto ordinary consumer’). Popularized by the 1948 film Berliner Ballade, in which a soldier with just that name returns home to Berlin after the war, the term derives from the bureaucratic jargon used in the context of post-World War II food rationing. It is however likely that the term emerged earlier, possibly in the first half of the 20th century. The name Otto, another common name for a medieval king, is today not as popular anymore as it used to be.
The everywoman, on the other hand, is often referred to as Lieschen Müller, which entered general usage in the early 1960s following the release of the film Der Traum von Lieschen Müller (‘The Dream of Lieschen Müller’). However, the placeholder can be traced back to earlier sources; first mentions of the name appear as early as the 1950s. While Müller (English ‘Miller’) is still an extremely common surname in Germany, Lieschen as the short form of Elisabeth is less frequently used today.
Do you know any placeholder names in other languages? Or want to add something to the languages already discussed? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.