Random Bugs #2: Who is John Doe?

Who is John Doe?

Hello everyone! Welcome to another short post from the series of Random Bugs, where I bring up some of the random questions that pop into my (and possibly anybody else’s) head throughout the day, and finally look for a satisfactory answer.

Some time ago, when I introduced this series, I answered the first one: Have you ever wondered how computers measure time when they are turned off? Ever since I finally found out I felt a bit happier – one less tiny little thing to worry about. And that’s exactly the point of these posts – to bring the joy of knowing something, even though so unimportant you don’t really care, but still are curious about.

Today, I was just sitting on a hill enjoying the nature around me, when this little bugger popped into my mind:

#2: Who is John Doe?

We all  have heard that name at some point. Where I come from, John and Jane Doe are popularized mostly by movies and TV shows like CSI. Those are the names given to any unidentified or anonymous victim, the male being John and female – Jane. But people don’t have to be dead to be named John Doe. Sometimes the person may intend to remain anonymous, so he or she uses Doe as a cover-up. I wonder though, how does it feel to actually be named John Doe? According to this website, there is currently 227 people named John Doe in U.S. alone. I bet they get a lot of Doe-jokes.

The names are also used as common placeholders e.g. in form templates, along with some imaginary address etc. But the question really is – where do they come from?

Answering the question

The truth is that it is not uncommon to use model names as placeholders, either in form templates or to fill in a name of a fictional, anonymous or unidentifiable person. In Britain, for example, John Smith may be used instead of Doe. Here, in Czech Republic, Doe’s name is “translated” to Jan Novák. These are both very common names in their respective country of origin and hence I was quite surprised to find out, that John Doe is not so common in the U.S. And that it actually has a story behind it. Kinda.

According to Wikipedia, John Doe actually originates in the UK. And he has a way less famous “brother” named Richard Roe. Other variants (names like Poe, Loe and possibly even Moe!) have been used, but most often it was these two.

The story begins perhaps as early as in the 14th century, England. I didn’t go into much detail as I have no interest in history of law at all, but from what I understood, John Doe probably always was a made-up person, forged in the “bureaucratic war against squatters”. It seems that if somebody wanted to legally claim any real property – e.g. when a bunch of people you know nothing about decided to settle down on your land – it was just too damn complicated. And possibly involved a risk of a trial by combat. Well, who would want to lose his head to a hassle over his own house?

Instead, people found another way (a loophole in the law, perhaps?). Basically, the supposed owner of the property would make up two fictional characters – John Doe and another one (like Richard Roe) – and these would later formally take their places at the court. John Doe being the nominal plaintiff and Roe becoming a nominal defender in the so called act of ejectment. During the process, the true ownership of the property was settled and from then on, the claimant had no more troubles getting rid of the unwanted tenants. Or at least that’s what Oxford English Dictionary says.

Honestly, I don’t see how this is easier. Although it was possibly worth it, considering that if you followed the regular procedures, you could die as a result of the trial by combat (I bet Tyrion wouldn’t mind though).

So, that was the story of John Doe. I won’t pretend I understand all the law-stuff – and I don’t really need to. Now I know, at least in principle, where the name comes from and my mind can once again rest. For a moment. Have you got anything interesting on your mind? Let me know!

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  1. I was lately wondering about purchasing a gramophone. I love vinyls, my grandparents have few homemade, the sound of music is magically better. But I never really know, how does vinyl records work. How they are made, or if there’s needed a special way of “album making” compared with a cd’s?
    I’d be happy if you can answer my questions and I hope I inspired you for your next writing. J.

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