What’s in a name?

Almost as soon as I started teaching, I realised that there were plenty of countries out there that took names a bit more seriously than we do here in England. When meeting new classes, I’d often be told things like “I’m Haruko. My name means spring child“, or “My name’s Hakim, which means wise in Arabic”. Inevitably, at some point I’d get asked what my name meant, and I’d shuffle awkwardly before admitting that “it basically just means . . . me!” I might go on to add that I was named after my grandfather on my mum’s side, who I never met, but that was about it.

However, while the vast majority of traditional English names don’t have any real meanings embedded within them – and certainly none that their owners are generally aware of – we do have a whole host of everyday phrases used widely in spoken English that contain different names, and in this blog post, I aim to explore the most common.

JACK THE LAD

If a young man if described as being a bit of a Jack the lad, the suggestion is that he’s incredibly self-assured and self-confident – to the point of being a bit cocky; he’s usually quite well-built and probably works out a fair bit. He may well be quite buffed-up – quite muscly – as he does a lot of weight training. He probably walks with a bit of a swagger and generally lets everyone who’s watching (and he hopes that everyone is) that he’s king of the hill. In other words, he thinks he’s it. He may well be very popular with the ladies – and is probably a bit of a womaniser.

There’s also the implication that he might be a bit of a chancer. He’s always willing to take a few risks if he think it might be to his advantage. He’s usually got the gift of the gab so he’s able to talk easily and confidently in a way that make people want to listen to him and believe him. He’s probably also got a lot of front – he knows how to present himself as a strong, dominant, confident person, even if it’s not always true.

In the 90s, there was a wave of what became known as lad culture. Britpop bands like Oasis were at the forefront of this, and their lead singer, Liam Gallagher, is in many ways the archetypal Jack the lad – aggressive, proudly anti-intellectual, a drinker and enthusiastic consumer of recrational drugs . . . . and not unfamiliar with a one-night stand.

JOHNNY-COME-LATELY

If someone is described as a Johnny-come-lately, it’s a critical way of saying they’re new to a particular activity or profession or place. There’s also a suggestion that they might just be jumping on the bandwagon – getting involved in something after it’s become very popular so that they can now share in its success.

The word is often used to mark off territory and distinguish insiders from outsiders. DJs who’ve been involved in a particular music scene since the very beginning may express their resentment towards suceesful newcomers by calling them Johnny-come-latelies, hardcore football fans who’ve stuck with their team through thick and thin will use the term to describe the glory hunters who suddenly start following the team after they get taken over by a foreign billionaire and start winning trophies, and members of a minority community may use it to talk about companies who suddenly start supporting their cause after having previously discriminated against them. It’s a way of showing you don’t trust their motives and think they’re just putting on a show as the tide has now turned and it’s more profitable to be seen as tolerant and liberal than it once was.

BILLY NO MATES

If you’re left sitting on your own somewhere becuase all your mates have failed to turn up like they promised they would . . . or, even worse, if you are on your own because don’t have any friends at all, then you’re sat there like Billy no mates.

We often use this word when we’re complaining:

“You lot were supposed to be here ages ago! I’ve been sitting here like Billy no mates for about an hour now!”

“Yeah, thanks for leaving the party without telling me you were going! I was left there on my own like Billy no mates. Remind me to return the favour one day.”

If you move to a new town or country, start a new job or find that all your friends have now settled down so you’ve no-one left to go out with, you might sometimes end up feeling like a bit of a Billy no mates. At times like that, you need to make an effort and get out there and meet new people. Otherwise, you’ll just end up moping round the house on your own, wallowing in your own misery. Or else, you’ll be crying into your beer as you hide yourself away in a dark corner of your local pub.

BOB’S YOUR UNCLE

The phrase Bob’s your uncle is often used at the end of a set of instructions to means something like and if you do that, then everything will then be fine. For instance, if you’re explaining to someone lacking even basic cooking skills how to get a Pot Noodle ready for consumption, you might say “So you boil the kettle, open the lid of the pot noodle, take the packet of flavouring out, pour the boiling water in, add the flavouring, give it a stir . . . and Bob’s your uncle. It’s ready to eat.”

Because Bob is short for Robert, you sometimes hear variations on this phrase. For instance: “We’re making our own sloe gin. We picked a kilo and a half of sloes on Thursday, and stuck them in the freezer overnight to simulate the frost they are supposed to have. Then just add them to two litres of the cheapest gin you can find . . . . and Robert’s your mother’s brother.”

According to one story, the phrase dates back to 1887, when, in a blatant case of favouritism, the Prime Minister at that time, Robert Cecil, decided to appoint his nephew Arthur Balfour to the prestigious (and very sensitive) post of Chief Secretary for Ireland. As a result, “Bob’s your uncle” became another way of saying “your success is guaranteed.”

A JACK OF ALL TRADES

A Jack of all trades is someone who can do lots of different jobs, especially the kinds of things that people ofen get odd-job men in to do: a bit of plumbing – maybe fixing a leaky tap or unblocking a toilet; perhaps a bit of gardening – mowing the lawn, putting down a patio, repairing fences; putting flatpack IKEA furniture together, changing light fixtures, and so on. When you’re impressed by the range of things someone you know can do, you might say “Wow! You’re a bit of a Jack of all trades, you, aren’t you?”

However, one old version of the phrase is actually Jack of all trades, but master of none, and so there can sometimes be the suggestion that you’ve just dabbled in lots of different areas, but never taken the time to really excel at any of them. As such, you also see comments like this:

“He’s a very versatile player who can fit in anywhere in defence or central midfield, but there’s still the worry that he’s a bit of Jack of all trades, but master of none.”

“A: I write, I play music, I DJ, I paint. I’m a Jack of all trades, really.

B: Yeah, but master of none if that painting over there is anything to go by!”

TOM, DICK AND HARRY

Usually, when we talk about (not just) any (old) Tom, Dick and Harry, we mean (not just) all / any ordinary people. It’s often used in a comic way. For instance, you might hand out an invite to a birthday party you’re throwing and to stress how lucky the recipient should feel, you say “I’m not just issuing these invitations to every Tom, Dick and Harry, you know. It’ll be a very select gathering.” In the same way, if you take friends to a bar or a club you know and you manage to get past the face control on the door, you might joke that “It’s a very elite place, this. They don’t just let in any old Tom, Dick and Harry off the street!”

We generally use the phrase in negative sentences, so you might warn your kids not to give their phone number or email out to every Tom, Dick and Harry that asks for it, or recommend that a neighbour get a specialist in sort out an electricial problem becuase you don’t want any old Tom, Dick and Harry messing around with your wiring.

FOR PETE’S SAKE!

For Pete’s sake is usually said at a moment of annoyance or frustration or exasperation – and it’s often just something we say to ourselves rather than to an audience. For instance, you might say it out loud when you’ve just sat down and are ready to start work, but then the doorbell rings . . . or when you see your bus at the bus stop, and run to try and catch it – only for it to drive off just as you’re almost there!

It’s a polite alternative to For God’s sake / For Christ’s sake, which some more religious folk might see as breaking the 3rd commandment by taking the Lord’s name in vain! Another common polite alternative is For crying out loud! However, at times of maximum stress, I must confess to frequently resorting to the far stronger For fucks’s sake! myself.

Quite how Pete came to be a substitute for God no-one seems to be quite sure. His name is certainly invoked pretty regularly, though:

For Pete’s sake! Just wear a mask like the rest of us!”

For Pete’s sake! I need to be up at six and now they’re having a party next door! I’m going to go and say something!”

“I can’t believe people still have these kind of prehistoric attitudes. I mean, it’s 2020 for Pete’s sake!

JOE BLOGGS / AN AVERAGE JOE

Joe Bloggs is the average guy on the street. He appears all the time in news reports and conversations about what’s going on in society. For example, in a recent blog post about countering fake news and limiting the spread of misinformation about Covid, I read that “whether it be from Presidents, Formula 1 drivers, or Joe Bloggs from Number 73, this poison of misinformation must be countered before it is allowed to become yet more potent.” Joe Bloggs seems to crop up in plenty of Covid-related stories. Elsewhere, we learn that “the UK epidemic didn’t start because Joe Bloggs and six relatives met for a Sunday roast”, for instance.

In another recent story, evidence of historic child sex abuse against a now dead member of the House of Lords has finally been revealed, causing one newspaper to dryly note that “if Lord Janner had simply been Mr Joe Bloggs he would have been prosecuted sooner.”

Joe Bloggs is so commonly used that we even had a fashion label of the same name that rose to prominence during the Madchester craze of the late 80s, when baggy jeans and T-shirts were all the rage with . . . well, with the average Joe on the street. Sadly, the company went into adminsitration a couple of years back now, making 60 people redundant in the process.

Want to learn more with Lexical Lab? Take a summer school course with us.

Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

  • Does your name mean anything? Do you know why you were given it?
  • Do you know anyone you’d describe as a bit of a Jack the Lad?
  • Has there ever been anything like lad culture in your country?
  • Have you ever met anyone who really had the gift of the gab?
  • Can you think of anyone you’d describe as a bit of a Johnny-come-lately?
  • When was the last time you ended up sitting on your own like Billy no mates? Why? What happened?
  • Can you think of any blatant examples of favouritism?
  • Do you know any relaly practical people you’d describe as a Jack of all trades?
  • When was the last time you felt like screaming “Oh, for Pete’s sake!”?
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