Vocabulary – Names of People You Should Know!

(Photo by Oliver Wilke)

In English, we use some fictional names in conversation. These are not names of real people! They are just names we use when we don’t know someone’s name, his/her name is not important, or we just need a funny name to call someone! These are names that are commonly used in American English.


Jane and John Doe

If you watch a lot of American TV shows and movies, you will have heard of these two people. Their names are frequently used in three different situations:

1. Unidentified dead bodies
Often police investigate a crime where someone has died or has been killed, but the name of the person is unknown. The body is simply called ‘Jane Doe’ (female) or ‘John Doe’ (male), until the police (or hospital, if the victim died in a hospital) can discover the identity of the body.

John Doe was found shot to death in the city park. If anyone has any information about his identity, please call the police.


2. A person must remain anonymous
Sometimes in legal cases, the name of person must be kept secret. The person must remain anonymous. Though the person is alive and has a real name, that person will still be called ‘Jane Doe’ or ‘John Doe.’

The woman was identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe.


3. A placeholder name
Jane and John Doe are also used as an example to explain how to fill out a form.

Write your name on the form wherever you see the name John Doe.


Joe Blow and Joe Shmoe

(sometimes spelled Schmoe or Shmo)

A typical, ordinary, everyday person. These names are used in conversation when you are not talking about one person specifically, but an average, random person.

The average Joe Blow has really suffered during this recession.

Although he has been in many famous movies, he doesn’t seem any different than any other Joe Schmoe in the neighbourhood.


John Hancock

Someone’s signature. [A signature is your name in your handwriting. Usually you write your signature on official documents.]

*In this case, John Hancock is an actual person! He signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence with such a large and unique signature, that his name has now become a synonym of ‘signature.’ Sometimes, the name is shorted to just Hancock.

He has a guitar with Bryan Adams’ John Hancock on it!


collocation: to put one’s John Hancock (on something)
= to sign something

“Just put your Hancock right here on the contract.”


Nervous Nellie

A Nervous Nellie (or nervous Nellie) is someone who is very nervous or very fearful about something.

Mary is being a nervous Nellie about her party. She thinks no one is going to come!

“Stop being such a nervous Nellie! The plane is not going to crash!”


Debbie Downer

A Debbie Downer is someone who is really depressing or unpleasant to be around, someone who can really bring down the mood of a conversation.

Jane is a real Debbie Downer. Every time I talk to her, she always has something negative or depressing to say.

Michelle was really depressed about her breakup with Dan. She was such a Debbie Downer and ruined our whole trip to Mexico.


Whatsisname or Whatsisface

(Alternative spellings: whats-his-name, whatshisname, whats-her-name, whatshername, whats-his-face, whatshisface, whats-her-face, whatsherface)

*In American English pronunciation, the ‘h’ at the beginning of ‘her’ or ‘his’ is often not pronounced when the word is unstressed in the middle of a sentence.

This is what to call someone when you can’t remember his/her name, or you don’t know the persons name (and you don’t care). It’s not a polite name, but it’s often used in informal conversation.

“I went to a party last night at my friends house. Alan was there with his new girlfriend, whatserface.”

“You know the guy I’m taking about – whatsisname, the one who was in the movie with Brad Pitt!


Bob’s your uncle!

[used mainly Britain and Canada]
(According to the dictionary, this expression is not commonly used in America, though I’m sure I’ve heard in an American movie or TV show.)

This is used at the end of a list of instructions or other explanation to express that something is very easy to do.

Assembling furniture from IKEA is very easy! You just lay out all the pieces, follow the simple instructions, and Bob’s your uncle!

Similar expressions: “There you go!” “You’re all set!”


Do you know any other fictional names used in English? Are there any fictional names used in your language?


7 Comments on Vocabulary – Names of People You Should Know!

  1. Ania
    April 20, 2012 at 4:13 am (4 years ago)

    Hello. I visit your blog regularly…I find it great..there is a lot of useful information and the topics you raise are very interesting! As for fictional names I have thought of John Q. Public (a citizen), Tommy Atkins (a soldier) or Steady Eddie (a reliable person). Kind regards!

    • Melanie
      April 20, 2012 at 12:01 pm (4 years ago)

      Hi, Ania!

      It’s nice to see you here!

      I had forgotten about ‘Steady Eddie’! It’s been awhile since I heard that. Thank you for reminding me!

      I hadn’t heard of ‘Tommy Atkins’ before, so I had to google it. It was used in the British army to talk about a common soldier. I can’t think of a similar name used in the American or Canadian military.

      = )

  2. Jesús
    April 20, 2012 at 5:58 am (4 years ago)

    I like this one: “Bob’s your uncle”.
    After doing some research about its origin, which is unknown as far as I know, I found a funny explanation of the idiom. Here it is:
    Bob’s your uncle and Fanny’s your aunt, Bob’s your uncle by Paperdragon (Rikki Donachie)

    I cannot accept the word can’t.
    And forget even thinking of shan’t.
    You can do it with ease
    Like a kid’s ABCs:
    Bob’s your uncle and Fanny’s your aunt.

    This peculiarly British phrase is used when something is a) easy, and b) swiftly and successfully concluded. Its origins are uncertain.

    In Spain, where I’m from, we use the name “Fulano” or “Fulanito” when talking about someone in the same way you do when you use “Joe Blow” and “Joe Shmoe”, an everyday person; We use that name too, when we don’t know the person’s name or it’s not relevant.

    Feel free to correct my mistakes!


    • Melanie
      April 20, 2012 at 12:10 pm (4 years ago)

      Hi, Jesús!

      That’s a great limerick you found! I hadn’t heard ‘Fanny’s your aunt’ before.

      You didn’t make any mistakes, so there’s nothing to correct!

      = )

  3. Anett
    April 24, 2012 at 3:42 am (4 years ago)

    Hi there
    I found your blog really interesting. Can I use this names in England? Will they understand me? Thanks :)

    • Melanie
      April 24, 2012 at 7:41 pm (4 years ago)

      Hi, Anett!

      Unfortunately, I don’t think you can use these names in England! I don’t know if they will understand you. I think they have their own names for these situations. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what the similar names are in England!

      = )

  4. meri
    August 5, 2014 at 8:21 am (2 years ago)

    thank you Melanie
    i love English and i want to know English very well
    at the moment i go to the course for learning this language
    i believe after a few times i will speak in English