John and Jane Doe are names probably really familiar with anyone who likes to read about crime or medical cases as super common pseudonyms. Either they’re pseudonyms or John and Jane Doe are the least lucky people on the planet. But even if they’re names used to preserve anonymity, who are John and Jane Doe?
When were they first used?
The name “John Doe” has been kicking around since the Middle Ages, and has its origins in the UK. Today, you probably think of John Doe in a legal (or legally adjacent) context first–which is also how the pseudonym was originally used. John Doe wasn’t the first generic name though. It’s not even the first one used in a legal context.
In Roman law there existed a system for placeholder names. That’s right, a legal system that predates AD had a means to anonymize plaintiffs and defendants. One of the common pseudonyms was Numerius Negidius, which was actually a pun. Numerius is a play on the very numero, which means “I pay,” and Negidius is based on the verb nego, which roughly translates to “I refuse.” Put it all together and Numerius Negidius roughly means “I refuse to pay.” As a result, the name was commonly used in place of a defendant’s name. For plaintiffs (the people filing lawsuits), the Romans had Aulus Agerius. It’s based on the Latin verb ago, which roughly means “to set in motion.” They also sometimes used the simple initials “N.N.” which stands for nomen nescio and translated from Latin literally means “I don’t know the name.”
Anyway, the Romans made good puns.
Back to the Middle Ages
When the English first started using the pseudonym John doe, they used it in an “action of ejectment.” This was the process by which landlords could kick out squatters or tenants. Under the legal framework of the 1300s, landowners were unable to properly use the legal system for this goal. That’s why they would bring an action of ejectment, which was basically made up of shenanigans. It was a motion built on a fake tenant against another fake person who allegedly evicted the (remember they’re still fake) tenant. A motion of ejectment using these fake individuals would force the court to acknowledge the landowner actually owned the property in question, which is actually the only thing landowners cared about at the time.
Why John Doe (sometimes Richard Roe) were chosen as pseudonyms is largely unknown, but the fact that the names are as nondescript and meaningless as they are is probably telling. Also, both the words “doe” and “roe” are likely references to deer, which were pretty common in Britain. So it’s a pretty fair (and common) argument that the names just represent the most average and nondescript person. It’s the reason why the US government uses the name now anyway. Sometimes you’ll even see “John Public.” The UK would get rid of using the names John Doe and Richard Roe in property issues by 1852, though one can still issue a “John Doe order,” which is basically a legal request for anonymity. Sucks for the guy actually named John Doe in real life.
Perhaps the most well-known use of “John Doe” in the American legal system is Roe v. Wade, which uses another one of the pseudonym’s many variations. There are many, many variations of the Does; frequently more infantilized names like “Johnny” or “Janie” when children are concerned. Nowadays regional variants exist all over the world, though one of the fun ones is Joe Soap, which comes out of British slang.
Speaking of John Doe being a stand-in for any given person, here’s a bunch of Johns.