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Meet John Doe

Paul Fletcher//March 24, 2011

Meet John Doe

Paul Fletcher//March 24, 2011

John Doe got sued this week.

He must screw up a lot, because he’s always getting sued.

Actually, whenever a lawyer needs to file a claim and isn’t sure quite whom to tag, she’ll file a suit against John Doe, particularly if there’s a statute of limitations about to run.

Once Doe is unmasked during discovery, the lawyer moves to amend and get the right person in the suit. The parties take it from there.

Was there ever a real historical John Doe? Doubtful. “John Doe” is “a fictitious name frequently used to indicate a person for the purpose of argument or illustration,” according to Black’s Law Dictionary.

It turns out John Doe has been used by lawyers as a placeholder name for centuries.

Michael Quinion, who writes on “international English from a British perspective” in the blog “World Wide Words,” says that Blackstone referred to John Doe in his “Commentaries on the laws of England” for 1765-69. And the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary take Doe back a century before that, with a reference in a 1659 document, “To prosecute the suit, to witt John Doe And Richard Roe.”

Ah, let’s not forget Richard Roe. He’s Doe’s sidekick, who shows up almost as often as Doe. He’s Sancho Panza to Doe’s Don Quixote. Sundance to his Butch. Barney Rubble to his Fred Flintstone. Doe and Roe could star in their very own buddy movie.

Think back to when you first met these guys, probably in law school. They appear in any number of legal hypotheticals, and in most of them, Doe always is suing Roe. Here’s hoping Roe takes it like a good No. 2 and has a good defense lawyer.

Even though we can’t place when John Doe was born, we can serve up some genealogy. The practice of creating fictitious persons to make a legal point dates back to Roman times. Roman lawyers had a guy named “Titius.”

Black’s says that “Titius” was “a proper name, frequently used in designating an indefinite or fictitious person, or a person referred to by way of illustration.”

Sounds like our friend John Doe. And for good measure, Titius had his own Richard Roe. The Romans used the name “Seius” as the second banana in their legal hypotheticals.

There actually are people named “John Smith” in the world (go no farther than Jamestown to see the big statue of Capt. John Smith). Anybody named John Doe?

Well, yes, at least one. A few years ago, a New York Times reporter went looking to answer that question and found Mr. Doe in the Upper West Side of New York City.

He is a Korean immigrant who came to the U.S. as a boy in the late 1970s. His name was Jang Do. Doe wanted an American-sounding name, so he changed “Jang” to “John” and persuaded his mom and dad to add an “e” to their surname. (So people would pronounce it like “tae kwon do,” not “hairdo,” he said). Yes, he said he’s heard all the jokes, and no, he said he does not have a wife named “Jane.”

Not explored was whether he had any friends named Roe.

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