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Where does the name “John Doe” come from?

Dear Cecil:

Where does the name "John Doe" come from? Is Doe some ancient abbreviation or acronym, or a condensation of Dead On Arrival, or what?

G.H., Los Angeles

Cecil replies:

“John Doe” was the name used by the British to stand in for unknown parties in legal actions. Doe was generally the plaintiff, with his sidekick “Richard Roe” subbing for the defendant. (Get it, roe and doe? Kind of a deer thing.) Use of the name goes back at least as far as the fourteenth century; there’s even some speculation that the names are as old as the Magna Carta (1215, if it’s slipped your mind), which required two witnesses for every legal proceeding. According to this story, when the wily prosecutors of the day found themselves short of witnesses, Doe and Roe were automatically pressed into service. Then, as now, no one much seemed to mind.

Cecil Adams

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