Tom, Dick and Harry
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The phrase "Tom, Dick and Harry" is a placeholder for multiple unspecified people; "Tom, Dick or Harry" plays the same role for one unspecified person. The phrase most commonly occurs as "every Tom, Dick and Harry", meaning everyone, and "any Tom, Dick or Harry", meaning anyone, although Brewer defines the term to specify "a set of nobodies; persons of no note".
Similar expressions exist in other languages of the world, using commonly used first or last names. The phrase is used in numerous works of fiction.
The origin of the phrase is unknown. The earliest known citation is from the 17th-century English theologian John Owen who used the words in 1657. Owen told a governing body at Oxford University that "our critical situation and our common interests were discussed out of journals and newspapers by every Tom, Dick and Harry." Pairs of common male names, particularly Jack and Tom, Dick and Tom, or Tom and Tib, were often used generically in Elizabethan times. For example a variation of the phrase can be found in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1597): "I am sworn brother to a leash of Drawers, and can call them by their names, as Tom, Dicke, and Francis." (However, the person speaking this line is Prince Henry, otherwise known as Harry, so Shakespeare could have been making a play on an already-known phrase.)
The phrase is a rhetorical device known as a tricolon, the most common form of tricolon in English is an ascending tricolon and as such the names are always said in order of ascending syllable length. Other examples of this gradation include "tall, dark and handsome", "hook, line and sinker", "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"; and so on.
English-speaking medical students use the phrase in memorizing the order of an artery, and a nerve, and the three tendons of the flexor retinaculum in the lower leg: the T,D,a,n, and H of Tom, Dick and Harry correspond to tibialis posterior, flexor digitorum longus, posterior tibial artery, tibial nerve, and flexor hallucis longus. This mnemonic is used to remember the order of the tendons from anterior to posterior at the level of the medial malleolus just posterior to the malleolus.
Tom, Dick and Harry is widely used throughout culture, so it is beyond the scope of this article to list every passing mention. However, some notable instances include the three Galapagos Island tortoises brought back to England aboard the HMS Beagle by Charles Darwin in 1835, as documented in his book, The Voyage of the Beagle. They were named Tom, Dick and Harry. It was later discovered that "Harry" was a female and she was renamed "Harriet", and lived in captivity in Australia until her death in 2006, aged 175 years. In the TV series, 3rd Rock from the Sun, the three lead male characters were called Tommy, Dick and Harry. It is also the name of a Rowan Atkinson sketch, in the form of a eulogy.
The three escape tunnels used by allied POWs in the famous Stalag Luft III escape were named "Tom, Dick, and Harry" by the POWs. This nomenclature was carried over to the movie portraying the event as well.
Notes and references
- Shakespeare, William; Bevington, David (1998). Henry IV, Part 1. Oxford University Press. p. 178. ISBN 0-19-283421-5.
- Partridge, Eric (2006). The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Taylor & Francis. p. 1981. ISBN 0-415-25938-X.
- Brewer, E. Cobham (1978). Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Avenel Books. p. 1235. ISBN 0-517-25921-4.
- Other Tom Dick and Harrys
- Peter Toon, God’s Statesman, pg. 52.
- "Tom, Dick, and Harry", the Gramaphobia Blog, February 18, 2007
- Henry IV, Part 1, via Wikisource
- "MedicalMnemonics". Medial malleolus: order of tendons, artery, nerve behind it. Retrieved 2008-01-17.
- Netter, Frank H. (2011) Atlas of Human Anatomy, 5th Ed. Saunder: Philadelphia.
- ANGIE GANGI (June 23, 2006). "Harriet the Tortoise Dies at 175". ABC News. Retrieved September 11, 2012.