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Why Are Unidentified People Called John or Jane Doe?

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From the courts to the morgue, if the government doesn’t know someone’s name or wants to withhold it, they give them one of these as a placeholder. Why?

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The John Doe custom was born out of a strange and long since vanished British legal process called an action of ejectment. Under old English common law, the actions landowners could take against squatters or defaulting tenants in court were often too technical and difficult to be of any use. So landlords would instead bring an action of ejectment on behalf of a fictitious tenant against another fictitious person who had allegedly evicted or ousted him. In order to figure out what rights to the property the made-up persons had, the courts first had to establish that the landlord really was the owner of the property, which settled his real reason for action without him having to jump through too many legal hoops.

Frequently, landlords named the fictitious parties in their actions John Doe (the plaintiff) and Richard Roe (the defendant), though no one has been able to find the case where these names were first used or figure out why they were picked. The names don’t appear to have any particular relevance, and it might be that the first names were chosen because they were among the most common at the time. The surnames, meanwhile, both reference deer - a doe being a female deer and roe a Eurasian deer species (Capreolus capreolus) common in Britain. They might also have been the actual names of real people that a particular landlord knew and decided to use. Unfortunately, we just don’t know.

Whatever their ultimate origin, the names eventually became standard placeholders for unidentified, anonymous or hypothetical parties to a court case. Most U.S. jurisdictions continue to use John Doe and his female counterpart, Jane, as placeholder names, and will bring in Roe if two anonymous or unknown parties are involved in the same case. Sometimes, the federal courts skip Doe and go right to Roe for anonymous plaintiffs The Feds use these placeholders, too, perhaps most famously in Roe v. Wade. The Jane Roe in that case was actually Norma Leah McCorvey, who revealed herself soon after the Supreme Court decision.

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'Froyo,' 'Troll,' and 'Sriracha' Added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
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Looking for the right word to describe the time you spend drinking before heading out to a party, or a faster way to say “frozen yogurt?" Merriam-Webster is here to help. The 189-year-old English vocabulary giant has just added 250 new words and definitions to their online dictionary, including pregame and froyo.

New words come and go quickly, and it’s Merriam-Webster’s job to keep tabs on the terms that have staying power. “As always, the expansion of the dictionary mirrors the expansion of the language, and reaches into all the various cubbies and corners of the lexicon,” they wrote in their announcement.

Froyo is just one of the recent additions to come from the culinary world. Bibimbap, a Korean rice dish; choux pastry, a type of dough; and sriracha, a Thai chili sauce that’s been around for decades but has just recently exploded in the U.S., are now all listed on Merriam-Webster's website.

Of course, the internet was once again a major contributor to this most recent batch of words. Some new terms, like ransomware (“malware that requires the victim to pay a ransom to access encrypted files”) come from the tech world, while words like troll ("to harass, criticize, or antagonize [someone] especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts”) were born on social media. Then there’s the Internet of Things, a concept that shifts the web off our phones and computers and into our appliances.

Hive mind, dog whistle, and working memory are just a few of the new entries to receive the Merriam-Webster stamp of approval. To learn more about how some words make it into the dictionary while others get left out, check these behind-the-scenes secrets of dictionary editors.

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How New Words Become Mainstream
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If you used the words jeggings, muggle, or binge-watch in a sentence 30 years ago, you would have likely been met with stares of confusion. But today these words are common enough to hold spots in the Oxford English Dictionary. Such lingo is a sign that English, as well as any other modern language, is constantly evolving. But the path a word takes to enter the general lexicon isn’t always a straightforward one.

In the video below, TED-Ed lays out how some new words become part of our everyday speech while others fade into obscurity. Some words used by English speakers are borrowed from other languages, like mosquito (Spanish), avatar (Sanskrit), and prairie (French). Other “new” words are actually old ones that have developed different meanings over time. Nice, for example, used to only mean silly, foolish, or ignorant, and meat was used as blanket term to describe any solid food given to livestock.

The internet alone is responsible for a whole new section of our vocabulary, but even the words most exclusive to the web aren’t always original. For instance, the word meme was first used by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

To learn more about the true origins of the words we use on a regular basis, check out the full story from TED-Ed below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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