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The meaning and origin of the expression: Tom, Dick and Harry

Tom, Dick and Harry

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Tom, Dick and Harry'?

Tom, Dick and Harry is an English phrase used to refer to average, random men. It is often used to denote ordinary, working class men of no especial note. It is a near equivalent of 'John Doe' or 'Jane Doe' in US speech, although Tom, Dick and Harry isn't used to refer to a signature.

The phrase was commonplace in the UK until around the middle of the 20th century but less so now than previously.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Tom, Dick and Harry'?

'Tom, Dick and Harry' was coined in 17th century England. Like many expressions that include people's names Tom, Dick and Harry weren't real people. Tommy Atkins was another example. The choice of names certainly came about because Thomas, Richard and Henry, which are the 'proper' versions of Tom, Dick and Harry, were very commonplace names in England in 1600s.

The earliest known use of Tom, Dick and Harry in print is in the work of the English theologian John Owen, who used the expression in 1657.

The phrase didn't spring from nowhere though. Prior to Tom, Dick and Harry there was Tom, Dick and Francis. Shakespeare used this term to refer to a group of drinking partner loggerheads (by which he meant blockheads) in Henry IV, Part 1, 1597:

I am sworn brother to a leash of drawers [drinkers], and can call them all by their Christian names, as Tom, Dick, and Francis.

Tom, Dick and HarryIt may be that Tom, Dick and Harry was already in use by that time and that Shakespeare chose to amend it with Francis as Harry was the name used for the king in Henry IV.

Although Tom, Dick and Harry were English the phrase was in common enough use in 1941 for it to have been used as the title of a Ginger Rogers movie.

The French have their own variant in 'Pierre, Paul ou Jacques' and the Germans have 'Hans, Peter and Fritz', although these came about more recently.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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