The John Doe custom was born out of a strange and long since vanished British legal process called an action of ejectment. Under old English common law, the actions landowners could take against squatters or defaulting tenants in court were often too technical and difficult to be of any use. So landlords would instead bring an action of ejectment on behalf of a fictitious tenant against another fictitious person who had allegedly evicted or ousted him. In order to figure out what rights to the property the made-up persons had, the courts first had to establish that the landlord really was the owner of the property, which settled his real reason for action without him having to jump through too many legal hoops. Frequently, landlords named the fictitious parties in their actions John Doe the plaintiff and Richard Roe the defendant , though no one has been able to find the case where these names were first used or figure out why they were picked.
Test your vocabulary with our fun image quizzes
Add Jane Doe to one of your lists below, or create a new one. Improve your vocabulary with English Vocabulary in Use from Cambridge. Learn the words you need to communicate with confidence. Driven or bone idle? Definitions Clear explanations of natural written and spoken English.
You are here
To save this word, you'll need to log in. See more words from the same year From the Editors at Merriam-Webster. Accessed 31 Aug. Please tell us where you read or heard it including the quote, if possible. Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way. Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free! On open, closed, and hyphenated compounds Ask the Editors 'Intensive purposes': An Eggcorn We're intent on clearing it up 'Nip it in the butt': An Eggcorn We're gonna stop you right there Literally How to use a word that literally drives some people nuts. Is Singular 'They' a Better Choice? Test your knowledge of strange human behaviors. Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?
Secondly, such names are also often used to refer to a hypothetical " everyman " in other contexts, in a manner similar to " John Q. Public " or "Joe Public". In other English-speaking countries , unique placeholder names, numbers or codenames have become more often used in the context of police investigations. However, the legal term John Doe injunction or John Doe order  has survived in English law and other legal systems influenced by it. Other names such as " Joe Bloggs " or " John Smith " have sometimes been informally used as placeholders for an everyman in the UK, Australia and New Zealand ; such names are seldom used in legal or police circles in the same sense as John Doe. Under the legal terminology of Ancient Rome , the names " Numerius Negidius " and " Aulus Agerius " were used in relation to hypothetical defendants and plaintiffs. The name "John Doe" or "John Doo" , "Richard Roe", along with "John Roe", were regularly invoked in English legal instruments to satisfy technical requirements governing standing and jurisdiction, beginning perhaps as early as the reign of England's King Edward III — Their fee-faw-fum's an ancient plan To smell the purse of an Englishman, And, 'ecod, they'll suck it all they can, John Doe and Richard Roe As is well known, the device of involving real people as notional lessees and ejectors was used to enable freeholders to sue the real ejectors. These were then replaced by the fictional characters John Doe and Richard Roe.