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Idioms, Cliches, and Slang

How did the terms Jane Doe and John Doe originate?


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August 22, 2009 10:32PM

It's pretty simple, at the time; Jane was the most common female name, John the most common male name, Doe the most common surname. Heres what I came across: In the United States, the name John Doe is used for a defendant or victim in a legal example or for a person whose identity is unknown or is intended to be anonymous. Male corpses whose identity is unknown are also known by the name John Doe. A female who is not known is referred to as Jane Doe. A child or baby whose identity is unknown can be referred to as Baby Doe, or in one particular case, as Precious Doe. Additional people in the same family may be called James Doe, Judy Doe, etc. An anonymous plaintiff is known as Richard Roe, or Jane Roe in the case of a woman (as in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which declared laws restricting abortion in the first trimester unconstitutional). The Oxford English Dictionary states that John Doe is "the name given to the fictitious lessee of the plaintiff, in the (now obsolete) mixed action of ejectment, the fictitious defendant being called Richard Roe". Likewise, the Nuttall encyclopedia states that John O'Noakes or John Noakes is a fictitious name for a litigious person, used by lawyers in actions of ejectment.

The "John Doe" custom dates back to the reign of England's King Edward III, during the legal debate over something called the Acts of Ejectment. This debate involved a hypothetical landowner, referred to as "John Doe," who leased land to another man, the equally fictitious "Richard Roe," who then took the land as his own and "ejected," or evicted, poor "John Doe."

These names -- John Doe and Richard Roe -- had no particular significance, aside from "Doe" (a female deer) and "Roe" (a small species of deer found in Europe) being commonly known nouns at the time. But the debate became a hallmark of legal theory, and the name "John Doe" in particular gained wide currency in both the legal world and general usage as a generic stand-in for any unnamed person. "John Doe" and "Richard Roe" are, to this day, mandated in legal procedure as the first and second names given to unknown defendants in a case (followed, if necessary, by "John Stiles" and "Richard Miles"). The name "Jane Doe," a logical female equivalent, is used in many state jurisdictions, but if the case is federal, the unnamed defendant is dubbed "Mary Major." I feel I must interject concerning the above answer! The word or at least the spelling of the word we are discussing which is "Doe", is probably a nothing more than a mistake made in translation? That is, "doe" is English, from earlier centuries, but a spelling variation of "do" or "does", as in the verb form; "to do!", etc. Thus, numerous documents might well began with "(I) John doe, give" or substitute your finish, etc.! Thus "doe" is but a mistaken word that became a substitute for a last name! Try it, you and John Doe like it!