July 30, 2004

John Doe, Joe Farnarkle and John Furphy

[Following up on my earlier post " Matti, Nanashi and Fred"]. Robin Stocks' original post at carob (a blog) copied a list from Blick Online, which seems in turn to have gotten it from funnyname.com. Erin McKean (re)posted a relevant 2002 Verbatim column by Nick Humez.

I noticed an apparent typo in the Finnish name, but there is clearly a good deal more to say about this, starting with several of the comments on Robin Stock's post.

Minna from all-things-me added a more complete and believable correction of the Finnish name:

just letting you know that the Finnish version is a bit "off". It's actually Matti Meikäläinen

Minna should know, being actually Finnish, but the fact is that I should have see the vowel harmony problem too.

entangledbank made an important distinction:

'John Doe' and 'Richard Roe' are legal terms in the English-speaking world. They're not casual terms for the person in the street, which Joe Bloggs and Fred Nurke are, or in the USA Joe Public or Joe Sixpack. So I don't know whether any of these terms are translations of John Doe or just of Joe Bloggs.

Fred Nurke was a minor character in The Goon Show, the 1950s radio comedy, and taken up in wide use in Britain (and evidently in Australia) as a name for 'just some bloke'. I haven't heard of Mr Farnarkle but it's presumably of more recent invention, as farnarkling was a sport full of nonsense names invented by the New Zealand comedian Fred Dagg in the 1970s.

David Nash emailed me to agree, and explained further:

(except I go with the whG majority spelling Nurk rather than Nurke).
Fred Nurk is getting a bit more respectable, as in the model forms at http://www.pks.com.au/company/labwizardmarketfeedback.pdf
And, my parents' generation would instead say "Joe Blow".

A likely source of the furphy of "Farnarkle" is:

English (Australia): Fred Nurk, as in "afraid not" in a deep Aussie accent. Joe Farnarkle is another, a farnarkler is a bullshit artist.

-- Courtesy of Jeremy Ham http://www.funnyname.com/anonymous.html

where I suspect this Jeremy Ham to be indugling in a bit of farnarkling himself -- I've never heard "Joe Farnarkle" and Google only gets us to self-conscious listings.

In the legal context here, I think I've seen "A.N. Other" (but can't Google any for you).

If you wonder about furphy, as I did, here's a gloss and (long) explanation, starting

In the latest edition of The Australian Oxford Paperback Dictionary(1996) I entered furphy as a noun and an adjective and defined it as follows:

furphy n.(pl.furphies) 1 a false report or rumour. 2 an absurd story. adj.(furphier, furphiest) absurdly false, unbelievable: that's the furphiest bit of news I ever heard.

This Ozword comes from the name of [John] Furphy, a blacksmith and general engineer, who went to Shepparton from Kyneton in 1871 and set up a foundry. John Furphy designed a galvanised iron water-cart on wheels and his firm, J. Furphy & Sons, manufactured them. Each cart had the name FURPHY written large on the body. So successful were these carts that during World War 1 the Department of the Army bought many Furphy carts to supply water to camps in Australia and especially to camps in Palestine, and Egypt.

Fine -- but how did John Furphy's name come to be associated with rumours and lies? As far as I know, John Furphy was a most respectable and upright man, a Methodist lay preacher, and not in the least bit given to rumour mongering or telling tall tales. As a matter of fact, he often used the cast-iron ends of his carts to carry a variety of engraved moral advertisements, the following being typical:


The standard account has it that the term furphy arose among Australian soldiers overseas during World War 1. It seems that when soldiers gathered around these water-carts, they became sites for gossip and rumour. Another story has it that the drivers of these water-carts carried gossip and rumour from camp to camp, no doubt making a good story better as they proceeded. Whatever the reason for the nexus, the nexus was soon established between the name on the cart and the rumour-mongering associated with the cart's arrival: the furphy was born as soldier slang. Shortly thereafter furphy (also spelled furfy and furphey) left the confines of the camps and established itself firmly as part of the general Australian language, a position it holds securely to this day.

What a great example of metonymy in action!

But one more thing: in legal parallel with John Doe we have Jane Doe. Female forms are rare in the lists cited so far -- is that because they're really not out there, or because they weren't collected?

[Update 1/6/2005: Philip Ryan writes to say that

Fred Dagg is actually the stage name of John Clark. Fred Dagg was his alter-ego, the canonical New Zealand sheep farmer.

The choice of the name "Dagg" was because a "dag" in Australian and New Zealand idiom is a silly, dumb, or idiotic person. Think Homer Simpson.

The word "dag" comes from the name for the shit, muck, and mess that gets stuck on sheep wool around the sheep's anus. Farmers and farmers-hands may regularly cut off the dags to keep their sheep clean. Or they are removed from the wool prior to processing, once the sheep is shorn.



Posted by Mark Liberman at July 30, 2004 07:32 AM