Schmo, Blow, Doe & Bloggs: not just any old Joe, John or Fred


Joe on his own can mean any bloke, chap or fellow.* Especially if he has average in front of his name. (It can also mean coffee, but let’s not get off topic.) To the Brits, Joe is sometimes the embodiment of an American — as in GI Joe. But when we’re talking about a hypothetical average normal ordinary guy, Joe tends to get his own surname: Bloggs if he’s British; Schmo or Blow if he’s American.

In its recent review of the coffee-making alarm clock the Barisieur, commented that “this $200-330 purchase is certainly not for the average Joe Schmoe.” [Isn’t that tautologous, “average Joe Schmoe”? Isn’t he average by definition?] And on the other side of the Atlantic, “the general Joe Bloggs you meet in the street or at Sainsbury’s may have watched women’s rugby a bit on TV,” English rugby player Maggie Alphonsi was quoted as saying in The Independent

Joe Bloggs’s origins — at least in his incarnation as an average dude — are unknown. The Online Etymology Dictionary dates him back to c.1969, while noting that the word blog meant “a servant boy” in about 1860, and that Partridge describes this use of blog as a perversion of bloke, which is a Britishism for dude or guy. Perhaps therein lies an explanation for average Joe’s last name? And let’s not forget that he has a British cousin, Fred, with the same surname, who’s also an average Joe; they are both known to hang out in Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, as well as populating their native English shores.

Bloggs’s Yankee counterpart Schmo (sometimes spelled Schmoe or Shmo) can, unlike Blighty Joe, trace his lineage back: hailing from the 1940s, this Joe is an alteration of schmuck, a Yiddish word that has slid into American slang as a pejorative name for a foolish or contemptible person. Since when did average mean foolish? But at least this guy’s not alone: Schmo has some buddies in the world of average American Joes: meet Messrs. Blow** and Sixpack …

Tom, Dick and Harry live in the proverbial gutter where just about anyone who’s no-one might thrive. If you’re not one of them, you’re all right Jack. Then there are A. N. Other and John Smith (or his relatives Mr. and Mrs.): faceless placeholders whose pseudo-identities come in handy when we’re writing in temporary ink. Their German friends Max (or Erika) Mustermann and Otto Normalverbraucher are very durchschnittlich; their French equivalents — Monsieur ou Madame X — are mildly more intriguing. Curiously, Fred — but just Fred, not the Mr. F. Bloggs mentioned above — is a popular placeholder in the programming community, since the letters of his name are neighbors on the QWERTY keyboard, so he’s easy to type.

Now let’s meet John Doe, who is slightly more shady than his pals Joe and Fred. He hides in the shadows, his true identity unknown — or withheld for legal purposes. He’s often dead or unconscious with no ID — hence his anonymity. (Jane Doe or Jane Roe are his female accomplices; Jonnie and Janie are the unknown children.) Arrest warrants are issued in his name. We come across a lot of J. Does in North America, but strangely they no longer tend to be residents of other English-speaking countries — not even in the UK where their last name originated. 

The Online Etymology Dictionary has the scoop on John Doe’s back-story. A fictitious plaintiff in a legal action, he is “attested from 1768 (in  Blackstone). The fictitious defendant was Richard Roe. He replaced earlier John-a-nokes (1530s) or Jack Nokes, who was usually paired with John-a-stiles or Tom Stiles. By 1852,  John Doe was being used in North America for “any man whose name is not known,” but Britain tended to preserve it in the narrower legal sense: “name of the fictitious plaintiff in actions of ejectment.” The John Doe warrant is attested from 1935.”

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 Joe college meaning “typical college man” is from 1932. (Online Et. Dic.)

** Joe Blow meaning “average fellow” is U.S. military slang, first recorded in 1941. (Online Et. Dic.)

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