Meet John Doe

Language and how we use it.
June 25 1997 3:30 AM

Meet John Doe

... and Jane Roe, John Q. Public, and other ordinary citizens.


As the forces of rebellion gathered momentum this spring in the Republic of Zaire, commentators felt obliged to offer a thumb-sucking retrospective on the country's embattled and dying president, Mobutu Sese Seko, who had held power for more than three decades. All the commentaries at some point brought up the subject of the departing leader's full name. Born Joseph Désiré Mobutu in 1930, he changed his name, after consolidating his dictatorship, to "Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga." In Mobutu's native Lingala language, according to one group of press reports, the name means "the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake." An alternative translation, according to a second group of reports, is "the cock whose prowess leaves no hen untouched."


In an age when national power inheres less and less frequently--or, at any rate, less and less legitimately--in the hands of an all-powerful individual, the adoption of a symbolic personal name by way of an aggrandizing personal epithet has sadly fallen out of favor. Among world leaders today the few practitioners of this form of personal rule include Syria's Hafez al-Assad ("Assad" means "lion" in Arabic) and Turkmenistan's Turkmenbashi--"father of the Turkmens," the form of address favored by President Saparmurat Niyazov, the landlocked republic's opéra-bouffe strongman who has commissioned a stunted replica of the Eiffel Tower, with a revolving statue of himself on top, for the center of his capital city, Ashkhabad.


M ost of the world's remaining monarchs possess a number of colorful inherited titles ("Defender of the Faith" in Great Britain, "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" in Saudi Arabia), but these are functional designations and little more than quaint vestigial appendages, like a whale's arms. There is certainly no contemporary leader with an adopted name as coldly presumptuous as "Stalin" (meaning "man of steel," an epithet adopted when Josef Dzhugashvili was still more than a decade away from power), much less one comparable with "Richard the Lionhearted" or "Vlad the Impaler." The one place where adopted names retain an organic vitality is in occupations where professionals can still claim some prestige based on a perception of personal exploits or exotic capabilities, such as organized crime (Gregory "The Grim Reaper" Scarpa, Anthony "Gas Pipe" Casso) and pornographic entertainment (Lisa Lipps, Sandra Scream--to name two of the more serene).

As decision making has devolved from the autocrat to the ordinary citizen, it is the ordinary citizen--the anonymous Everyman, an embodiment of rights and responsibilities shared by all--whose name is increasingly invoked. There are a number of generic possibilities. A 1992 New Yorker cartoon showed one campaign worker talking to another in an office near the Capitol, and bore a caption that read, "So what you're saying is that Joe Sixpack and Joe Blow are one and the same person?" Yes--and he may also be "John Q. Public," "Joe Zilch," the "Common Man," and the "Unknown Citizen" invoked by W.H. Auden in his poem of that name. (The epitaph on the monument to this Citizen reads, in part: "The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day/ And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way./ Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,/ And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left cured.") John, Joe, and the others are probably also related to the people whose names are found on the credit cards and driver's licenses displayed in advertisements, and I assume they all know the mysterious "M. Marts" whose name appears on dunning letters from American Express, above a signature that looks like it was drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch.


T he most venerable among the common names in the English-speaking world for an ordinary male citizen, or indefinitely for any male person, is "John Doe"; and for his female counterpart, "Jane Roe." Both names (along with the no-longer-common "John-a-'nokes" and "John-a-'stiles") derive from legal custom dating back almost to medieval times, in cases where suit needed, for arcane reasons, to be filed against a legally fictitious person. They served precisely the same function that the names "Gaius," "Titius," and "Seius" did in ancient Rome. John Doe, Jane Roe, and a handful of similar variants are used today to shield the identity of an actual person whose identity is known (as in the famous abortion case Roe vs. Wade), or to indicate (as in a so-called "John Doe summons") an actual person whose identity is not yet known. Law-enforcement officials investigating the Oklahoma City bombing spent months looking for a suspect who, within hours of the crime, was given the designation "John Doe No. 2," eventually tracking the man down and also establishing his innocence. The lawyers for Timothy McVeigh, who was designated "John Doe No. 1," argued that the bombing was actually the work of a broader conspiracy. The chief defense attorney, Stephen Jones, stated, "We certainly will contend that there is a John Doe 2, and maybe 3, 4, and 5." Such a plurality of Does is typically cause to invoke the variant forms. The Supreme Court this month will hand down a decision regarding a pair of cases, from Washington state and New York, involving the legality of assisted suicide. The individual plaintiffs in the Washington case were listed in the appeals-court opinion as "Jane Roe; John Doe; James Poe; Harold Glucksberg, M.D." ("Glucksberg," of course, is not some ambitious new departure in the field of generic fictitious names, and there will not soon be a movie called Meet Harold Glucksberg. Glucksberg is just the real name of a doctor involved in the case.)

New words for Everywoman and Everyman are proliferating, albeit with a qualitative difference. Whereas Jane Roe and John Doe at least give a nod to status based on the fact of mere personhood, the new terminology seems to confer status on the basis of some salient generic attribute--consider "occupant," "head of household," "user," "the consumer." This has come about owing to the continuing merger of demographic science and marketing, and the tendency is probably not reversible.


A ll the more reason, perhaps, to insist on a little more bravura individuality on the part of our world leaders. One could stop well short of anything as elaborate as the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie's old tag line ("King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah") or the array of distinctions paraded by the young ruler in Evelyn Waugh's Black Mischief (a proclamation begins, "We, Seth, Emperor of Azania, Lord of Wanda, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University ...") and yet still provide an evocative garnish. One possibility might be to allow sitting American presidents (for example) to add the name of at least one former president or other historic American to their official names. One can easily see, though, how in some hands this could lead to pandering--the nominal analogue of ticket-balancing ("I, William Jefferson Roosevelt Kennedy Patton Rosa Parks Harvey Milk Sitting Bull Clinton, do solemnly swear ..."). A more promising direction is simply to require American leaders to absorb their Secret Service code names into their proper names.

The Secret Service, perhaps owing to the quotidian proximity that the role affords, has demonstrated a proven knack for understated aptness in its selections. Ronald "Rawhide" Reagan. Dan "Scorecard" Quayle. Edward "Sunburn" Kennedy. Jimmy "Deacon" Carter. Bob "Patriot" Dole. Should an unelected tribunal be entrusted with such power? That is a question for the political philosophers. For myself, I'd be willing to let the creators of Roger "Headache" Clinton at least give it a try.


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