Saturday July 1, 2006

Named Archetypes

I've been thinking recently about an interesting group of English expressions that, for lack of an accepted term (that I know of), I'm going to call named archetypes (NAs).  These are expressions that satisfy three criteria:

  1. They contain an English first name (personal name, forename, Christian name—you know what I mean)
  2. They do not refer to a particular person, but rather to any person with a particular quality
  3. They can only refer to individuals, not to groups

I had a few of these in mind already, including nervous Nellie and Johnny-come-lately, and I wanted to see if there was any existing literature about them.  Searching Google Scholar for ""Johnny come lately" and "Johnny on the spot" turned up a link to an interesting and extensive article by Henri Van Hoof that discusses a staggering number of expressions, in French and English, containing first names.  Most of these, including a surprisingly large number of plant names, don't meet the criteria above, but a few do.  Combining my short list of NAs with ones from the article that I recognized, I came up with the following list:

nervous Nellie, Johnny-come-lately, Johnny-on-the-spot, Jack of all trades, big Bertha, plain Jane, smart Alec, hill-billy, good-time Charlie, Joe Cool, dumb Dora, Jack-the-lad, handy Andy, Charlie church, simple Simon, peeping Tom, and chatty Cathy

In addition to these, the Van Hoof article contains a few more I'd never heard before:

merry-Andrew, John-a-dreams, anytime Annie, alibi Ike, dismal Jimmy, homely Joan, Johnny head-in-the-air, lusty Lawrence, skinny Lizzie, and long Meg

Each of these expressions is a sort of an imaginary, archetypical character with only a single quality, and that quality can be associated with a real person by either referring to them with the expression or asserting that they are an instance of it (e.g. "Pay no attention to nervous Nellie", "He's another Johnny-come-lately").  A few of them (the ones with hyperlinks) might be more properly classified as allusions to particular fictional character or works.  There are a few more expressions like this that consist of only a name:

Mary Sue, Betty (or maybe this Betty?), Einstein, and Poindexter

These are more transparently allusions, and so perhaps not really examples of NAs.

There are several other related groups of expressions containing names, but I think they differ somewhat.  For example, here is a list of name expressions that refer, contrary to the third criterion above, to groups instead of individuals:

Tom Dick and Harry, Joe Sixpack, John Q. Public, Johnny Reb, John Law, John Bull, and Joe Blow

Each of these expressions can be used  to refer to a group of people who share a particular quality (e.g. Joe Sixpack for working people), but not, I think, to one individual with that quality—"He's a John Law" and "He's a John Q. Public" don't sound right at all.  These expressions are probably just examples of metonymy that happen to include a name.  (I suspect, by the way, that Joe Blow is a relation of the Doe/Roe clan, which is probably yet another class of expression containing a name.)

So, can anybody think of other examples of named archetypes that satisfy all three criteria?  The only other one I've heard used occasionally, with roughly the same meaning as plain Jane, is Sarah-plain-and-tall, but because that's actually the title of a fairly recent book and TV movie, I suspect when it's used it's consciously an allusion.  That makes me wonder how many of the named archetypes above, most of which aren't allusions to anything I'm familiar with, actually started out life as allusions but then became disassociated over time from their original referent (sort of like those orphaned punchlines I wrote about a while ago).

Before I finish, I wanted to mention two more classes of name expressions.  The first is names that refer to imaginary "spirits" used to anthropomorphize something impersonal:

Davey Jones (the ocean deeps) and Jack Frost (winter)

The second consists of names that don't refer to anybody, and yet occur in conventionalized expressions—that is, you can't replace them with another name and still have a meaningful expression:

Pete (for his sake), Mike (for the love of him), Bob (your uncle), Jack Shit and his cousin Jack Squat (who you don't know), and Jack Robinson (whose name you do things faster than say)

[Now playing: "New Year's Day" by U2]

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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This post by Kevin Drum mentions another, possibly obsolete, example, "Get there Eli".

Posted by: Jim Parish at Jul 1, 2006 3:18:40 AM

Johny B. Good of Chuck Berry fame and battlefield Earth - not really sure if it qualifies though.

Posted by: EFL Geek at Jul 1, 2006 3:46:34 AM

Great article -- btw, Anytime Annie is a character, played by Ginger Rogers in the movie 42nd Street.

Posted by: at Jul 1, 2006 5:15:45 AM

I couldn't think of any, but 10 unread RSS articles later, I saw a reference to a "nattering Nancy" in Gizmodo. Maybe "Nancy boy" would also qualify.

Posted by: Bridget at Jul 1, 2006 10:06:02 AM

Gloomy Gus.

Never heard "Skinny Lizzie"; "Skinny Minnie," though, yes.

Posted by: dagger aleph at Jul 1, 2006 10:21:05 AM

Does "doubting Thomas" qualify?

Posted by: Andy B at Jul 1, 2006 10:33:12 AM

I'd always presumed that Pete and Mike referred specifically to Saints Peter and Michael. Saint Peter in particular seems to be in the category of other entities you do things for the sake of, Goodness, God, Heaven, etc.

Posted by: includedmiddle at Jul 1, 2006 10:53:39 AM

Wow, great post. I believe that "doubting Thomas," like the Pete and Mike for whose love one expresses a certain exasperation, is of Biblical origin. (?) What about "Rosy the Riveter"? Quite specific cultural reference, of course.

Are you counting references to specific and/or legendary people? e.g Robin Hood ("A modern-day Robin Hood") and probably several hundred more. "Einstein" would appear to fall into this category, since it's a reference to a specific person, a kind of real-person synecdoche. (In fact, perhaps your "named archetype" notion is a kind of subset of synecdoches generally.)

There are a number of named archetypes, maybe, that fall into the category of offensive racial stereotypes as well, I suppose. One is "Charlie" as a generic (and compartively mild) name for the opposition during the Vietnam War. In fact, you can probably do a little sub-study on which names are selected to shove foreigners into stereotyped and insulting categories: "Pedro" as a generic name for latinos, "Adolf" for Germans, etc.

Going probably too far afield from your original notion of archetypal, there are some common names for nature that involve proper names -- "Jack-in-the-pulpit,"brown-eyed Susan". Food: Brown Betty, perhaps others?

Posted by: mike at Jul 1, 2006 1:16:51 PM

Wow, lots of comments!

Get there Eli

I've never heard this one. It's hard to tell from the few Google hits, but it might be closer to something like "Whoa, Nellie!", which has a conventionalized meaning and includes a name, but doesn't refer to or describe a person.

Johnny B. Good

Hmm, can you say, "He's a real Johnny B. Good"? It doesn't sound right to me.

Nancy boy

I had considered including this one, but I still can't decide if it qualifies or not. It seems to meet my three criteria, but, unlike most of the other NAs, there's not an obvious quality included in the expression. It's sort of halfway between something like "plain Jane", which you can understand even if you've never heard it before, and "Poindexter", whose meaning isn't immediately apparent. Note also that "Nancy" can be used by itself with the same meaning (e.g. "Man up, Nancy!").

gloomy Gus

Yes, definitely.

doubting Thomas

Hmm, it seems to qualify, but it's also, I think, consciously a Biblical reference for most people.

Rosie the Riveter

Like John Bull, John Law, and maybe Uncle Sam, I think Rosie is in a different category. She's the personification of all the women doing war work during WWII, but I'm not sure she expresses a quality of an individual person. If you said, "She's a real Rosie the riveter", what would that mean about the person in question?

True story: my grandmother, whose name was Rose, worked in the Douglas aircraft plant in Los Angeles during WWII. In 1945, she was transferred to bucking rivets (that's holding the metal bar the rivets flatten against), which she did for only one day because that day was V-J Day, and they all got laid off when the war ended. So she was almost Rosie the Riveter, but not quite.

generic names for people from particular countries

A couple of years ago when I way playing Call of Duty online all the time, I almost wrote a post about these. I wanted to know the right historically accurate name to use when taunting players on the other team. If I have it right, a British soldier was Tommy and an American soldier was Joe, but what about a German soldier? Fritz? Hans? Jerry?

Ooo, I just thought of another expression that's sort of like an NA, but doesn't contain a name, or not exactly: Mr. Smarty-Pants.

Posted by: The Tensor at Jul 1, 2006 4:58:52 PM

Of course there's also the phrase "(your) average Joe" (e.g. in an April Washington Post article, "The President as Average Joe"). This expression seems to piggyback off the Joe as Ordinary Guy notion reflected in Joe Blow and his British/Australian counterpart Joe Bloggs.

This discussion relates to something I've wondered recently: To what extent do we each have our own conceptual categories for first names? When you meet someone named Betty and think to yourself She doesn't look like a Betty!, this must mean you have some category of People Called Betty whose prototypical members are all, say, brunettes in your grandmother's generation. Where do the characteristics of the prototypes come from? If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say the largest influence comes from salient examples in your life (such as people you know with that name), but I think the sound of the name often plays a role as well: though I've never met one, I'd guess that Arabella would be very pretty and Rutherford irritatingly brusque, condescending, and pedantic (no offense to any Rutherfords who may be reading this!). How strange that a name can have a personality all its own...

Posted by: thechroniclinguist at Jul 1, 2006 6:31:37 PM

I believe "Johnny head-in-the-air" comes from Shockheaded Peter (Der Struwwelpeter) by Heinrich Hoffmann. Project Gutenberg has the text, but the lack of illustrations makes it almost pointless.

Ah, the original is Hans Guck-in-die-Luft. The translation on that site uses Johnny Look-in-the-Air, which is more accurate.

Posted by: KCinDC at Jul 1, 2006 6:52:38 PM

Moaning Minnie, Billy No-Mates, Two-Ton Tessie (I think is used generically, most people not realizing she was a particular real person), Spotty Herbert

Posted by: nw at Jul 1, 2006 11:30:14 PM

Goody Two-Shoes and various Little Miss ____.

Posted by: KCinDC at Jul 2, 2006 8:33:18 AM

There's also Betsy, to whom Heavens are always going, except for maybe when they go to her cousin Mergatroyd.

Posted by: includedmiddle at Jul 2, 2006 10:50:16 AM

Another name-only expression of interest is "Nimrod." Originally this was a Biblical allusion, but I would say that to most Americans it now just means "idiot" (or something like it). As far as I can tell this change was caused by Bugs Bunny cartoons - he used to call Elmer Fudd "Nimrod" sarcastically, as one might call someone acting stupid "Einstein" (the Biblical Nimrod was known as a hunter). I would guess that people not familiar with the name assumed it was a generic insult.

Posted by: Dan Blum at Jul 3, 2006 8:37:11 PM

Einstein is clearly out of place here, not being a given name; it belongs with Napoleon, Caesar, Michaelangelo, and other allusive uses of famous names.

If I could access my MT control panel I'd definitely blog that Van Hoof article -- what a find!

Posted by: language hat at Jul 5, 2006 6:37:25 AM

"One is "Charlie" as a generic (and compartively mild) name for the opposition during the Vietnam War."

Which has a very specific provenance: The Viet Cong were referred to as "VC" of course. "VC" in the phonetic alphabet used then (and now) in the US military was/is "Victor Charlie", which was condensed to "Charlie". This seems a different sort of thing than what The Tensor* was referring to.

I suspect that "G.I. Joe" might fit your criteria. Or perhaps used to, if the doll hasn't destroyed that meaning entirely. (While you mention "Joe" as a US soldier, you don't mention this specific formulation.)

Oh, and the enemy of Johnny Reb was Billy Yank, though I don't think that term was as widely used.

To the list of name-only terms, I'll add "Snuffy" (usually an infantryman) and "Mary Jane" (the subject of southern US jokes about stereotypical stupidity).

* I fear I don't know the proper form of address here; is it "The Tensor" or "Tensor"? Apologies if I've chosen incorrectly; formal address for the pseudonymous is fraught with difficulties unforeseen by Miss Manners.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth at Jul 5, 2006 9:58:02 AM

Where does "gal Friday" fit in? It's a literary allusion, sure, but those aren't excluded by the criteria given. My only concern about its NA status is that it really describes a relationship to another person, rather than a specific quality. Perhaps this is another related category? (Although I can't think of any others off-hand.)

I thought of "man jack" also, but this is really more in line with the "John Q. Public" group of terms. However, browsing "Jack" in the OED reveals a slew of such terms, including Jack Mormon (a non-Mormon on friendly terms with Mormons; also, a nominal or backsliding Mormon), Jack Nasty, (a term of reproach for a sneak or a sloven), Jack-sauce (a saucy or impudent fellow), and Jack sprat (a little fellow, a dwarf). I especially like "Jack Mormon."

Posted by: Jeff Prucher at Jul 5, 2006 3:33:08 PM

I figure "The Tensor" is like The Boy or The Cheat. It's a fixed phrased which doesn't change even in the vocative, or even with an indefinite article.

Posted by: includedmiddle at Jul 5, 2006 6:49:59 PM

Maybe I should change it to "Jack Tensor"—it's got a reliable everyman ring to it. "That Jack Tensor," people would say, "he seems like a good egg. I like the cut of his jib."

Posted by: The Tensor at Jul 5, 2006 7:14:04 PM

He's a real Jack Tensor, that one. Can't get enough of linguistics and sci-fi, and he's as pedantic as all get-out!

Posted by: Jonathan at Jul 6, 2006 8:13:43 AM

I figure "The Tensor" is like The Boy or The Cheat. It's a fixed phrase which doesn't change even in the vocative, or even with an indefinite article.

...or, like The City, even with a possessive:

Tick: The City. My The City.

Posted by: Marcos at Jul 6, 2006 8:59:46 AM


Posted by: Doug Sundseth at Jul 6, 2006 9:17:44 AM

For imaginary anthropomorphized archetypical spirits, you can't get more spiritous than John Barleycorn.

In that (alcoholic) vein, there's also this:

♪Oh never, oh never, oh never again
If I live to a hundred or a hundred and ten
I fell to the ground and couldn't get up
After drinking a quart of the Johnny-Jump-Up

Posted by: Owlmirror at Jul 6, 2006 6:39:44 PM

Related, perhaps, is the expression my mother used to use when describing a car ride or any trip that went hither and yon, all over the place: we were going "up Mike's and down Jake's." A Google search yields a couple of similar references, so I see this wasn't unique to Philadelphia.

Posted by: John at Jul 11, 2006 10:19:44 AM

Bob's your uncle

Posted by: Pat Lundrigan at Jul 19, 2006 9:41:50 AM

Flynn, like whom some are in.

Posted by: Henry IX at Jul 19, 2006 4:31:58 PM