Placeholder Names

By Mark Nichol

A placeholder name is any one of several types of term used instead of forgotten, unknown, or irrelevant words. Such words perform various functions in several categories.

For example, in social situations, words like buddy, dude, fellow (or fella), mac, and pal are colloquial stand-ins when addressing a person whose name is not known to the speaker. More formal variations are sir (for men), ma’am (for women), and miss (for younger women). Terms of endearment include baby, honey, dear, darling, and the like. Hon, short for honey, is also used in the American South as a casual term equivalent to buddy.

Given names also fill this need. Jack, a nickname for John, for much of modern English history the most common male first name, was also employed in Jack Tar, identifying the common sailor. (The invented surname came about due to the ubiquity of the scent of tar among rank-and-file seamen.) John also became a slang euphemism for a prostitute’s client, because most men in this position wish to remain anonymous.

Various hypothetical names serve in different social contexts: John Q. Public, originally used as a sample name on government forms, represents the typical American citizen; Joe Blow and Joe Sixpack are more colloquial versions implying an Everyman (that word itself is a placeholder name) with rudimentary sensibilities.

George Spelvin is a name used by actors who for some reason do not want to reveal their names, or to disguise on a list of characters and the actors who portray them that a character does not appear in a play or is played by a person appearing in another role. The directorial equivalent is Alan Smithee, a name occasionally employed by a director who disowns a film because of studio interference in its production.

Meanwhile, John Doe, Jane Roe, and the like are employed to stand in for plaintiffs in a legal case when the identity of the party is irrelevant or should be protected. Law enforcement agencies often use these types of terms as well, as when the perpetrator or the victim of a crime has not yet been identified.

The geographical placeholder name Anytown, like John Q. Public, comes from sample versions of forms. Derogatory equivalents include Hicksville and Podunk for backward rural locations, and the name of the actual Illinois municipality of Peoria was also long frequently employed (and occasionally still is) to stand for communities populated by unsophisticated people who may not appreciate cultural offerings (“Will it play in Peoria?”); the real places Outer Mongolia or Timbuktu have been used to represent the ultimate in remote locales.

The many number placeholders include “a ton,” buckets, heaps, oodles, and the like, or to represent smaller amounts, “a bit” or “a couple of” (or the slang variants “a couple-few” or “a couple-three”). Other words referring to large amounts include umpty and intensifiers of -illion such as zillion or kajillion.

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7 Responses to “Placeholder Names”

  • Geosota

    A favorite of mine is “bum f**k Egypt” (aka BFE), i.e., where you have to park if you get to a concert just as it’s starting.

  • Cliff Douglas

    There is a Hicksville, NY named for its founder Valentine Hicks.

    Will it play in Peoria, originated because the demographics of Peoria, IL most closely reflected the demographics of the United States.

  • Ed Buckner

    In our government office, when referring to a manufacturing process, we often call the product a widget. That is a placeholder for whatever manufactured product the facility makes. Sometimes chemicals are called widget polish or yo-yo polish. We refer to hazardous or toxic chemicals as triethylmethyldeath.

  • Stefano

    Thanks heaps, dude. A very informative and readable post.

    Joe Sixpack

    Smithee Dr
    Greater Podunk, TX

  • Tony Hearn

    How to start a hare running! Nothing to do with the article (for which many thanks), but a couple of queries: could Mark (and others) respond?

    “The many number placeholders”: This seems wrong as it stands. Does it mean “The many-number placeholders”? Though I’m not sure I understand that any the more either.

    “these types of terms”: walking in minefields invites explosions, but here goes anyway. Careful use would have “this type of term” or “terms like these”, or perhaps “these types of term”. “These types of terms” blends all three unsatisfactorily. At least, I suppose, it’s better than the increasingly common and unidiomatic “these type of terms”!

  • Ken

    I felt joy reading this post. Nice.

  • Sally

    1) My father, a radical from the 1960s/70s avers that only the police call one ‘Sir/Madam,’ and then only before they arrest one … afterwards, when one is being beaten senseless in the cells, one is “helping the police with their enquiries”! He has educated his local shop assistants to address him by the very Australian ‘mate.’

    ‘Mate’ is still the most common form of address to unknown men. At one time, imitating Aboriginal English, ‘Boss’– itself a borrowing from Afrikaans ‘baas = grandfather – was used (along with ‘Missus < Mrs for an unknown woman, whether married or not).

    ‘Luv’ or ‘Darl’ as forms of address to unknown women are going out of fashion (though note that these terms can also be used by women)

    ‘Miss’ gets a black look from me, while ‘babe’ (or similar) gets its male users a swift kick between the toes – the two big ones! I’ll answer to ‘Ms’, though I prefer ‘comrade.’ 😀

    I still can’t bring myself to call a mixed-gender group ‘guys’ – much less an all-female group.

    Women will refer to their female friends as ‘girlfriends’ (younger ones use ‘mates’), but men never refer to their male friends as ‘boyfriends’ – only ever as ‘mates.’

    2) [Much of what follows is sadly obsolescent, if not obsolete – our own dialect is being obliterated by a virtual tsunami of Americanized speech habits. Also note that traditional Aussie society was hyper-sexist]

    When talking of someone whose name was unknown or didn’t matter, Aussies used to say ‘some/that sheila (female)/bloke (male).’ Women could also be ‘sorts’ or – in male only conversations – ‘bints’ (from Arabic during WWI) or ‘tarts.’ A man would be a ‘joker’ or – especially if regarded as stupid/dangerous – a ‘clown.’ Again in men-only conversations, a man could be referred to as a ‘bastard’ – because Australia started as a convict colony, being called a ‘bastard,’ though not complimentary, was not as much of an insult as in other parts of the Anglosphere. In fact it can even be a sign of affection among/toward men– my partner was shocked the first time she heard me call my dad a “silly old bastard”!

    If wanting to name ‘Everyman,’ Aussies would choose ‘Jim Smith,’ ‘Joe Bloggs’ or ‘Fred Nerk’ while ‘Everywoman’ was ‘Mary Smith/Bloggs,’ ‘Betty Nerk’ or ‘Mrs/Miss McGillicuddy.’ Nowadays, courtesy of comedian Barry Humphries we have ‘Edna Everage (Average).’

    Someone unwelcome was ‘Joe Blow.’ After WWII, Greek, Balkan and Middle/Eastern European immigrants with ‘unpronounceable’ names were referred to – or even addressed as – ‘Wheelbarrow.’

    Other anonymous people (whose name is unknown/unimportant) are ‘So-and-so,’ ‘Whatsername / Whatsisname’ and Ms/Mr Foo. In my father’s day an unknown man of middle-age or older was “Old Fred up the Road” while a woman of a similar age was Mrs Kafoops (‘oo’ as in ‘book’) – especially if she were a busybody or gossip.
    In modern times we have ‘Jane/John Citizen’ on credit cards and official forms.

    3. Just as ‘Jack Tar’ was the average British sailor, the average soldier was Tommy Atkins (at least from 1815, when one Private Thomas Atkins, No. 6 Troop, 6th Dragoons became the exemplar in an instruction of how to fill out forms). His counterparts elsewhere included Billy Yank & Johnny Reb from the US Civil War, Johnny Turk (by Australians at Gallipoli in WWI), Tojo for Japanese soldiers in WWII, and Jacques, Fritz and Ivan for French, Germans and Russian military men – military women are still considered ‘odd’ here.

    4. Aussies like humorous or even slightly risqué placename placeholders – ‘Lower Bowelstutter’ in England, ‘Bonking/Wanking’ in China, ‘Dumpville’ in USA, ‘Whaikikamukau’ (‘Why-kick-a-moo-cow’ spelt as if it were a Maori word) in New Zealand and ‘Runnalong’ or ‘Jogonbye’ here. Terry Pratchett showed a similar inventiveness with ‘Didjabringabeeralong’ from ‘The Last Continent.’

    5. Australians often use ‘heaps,’ ‘buckets,’ ‘scads’ or ‘bulk’ for ‘an indefinite amount’ – “heaps/buckets/scads of food/money/rain, etc,” “bulk cash.” In the Aboriginal English of the state of Queensland and in the speech of some non-Aboriginal speakers in that state, ‘mobs’ serves the same purpose. Originally from phrases like “mobs of sheep,” we might hear “mobs of food/money/rain, etc” – I have heard a Queenslander say, “I love you biggest mobs.”

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