Every Tom, Dick and Harry

Example in use: “Don’t tell Louise anything you don’t want everyone to know. You know that she can’t keep a secret. Within minutes, she’ll have told every Tom, Dick and Harry!”

Meaning: everyone and anyone, the “common man”, general reference to ordinary people

Possible German equivalent: Krethi und Plethi

Possible origin: While the actual origin is unknown, references to variations of this idiom seem to appear around the time of Shakespeare. In 1597, in his play Henry IV, he refers to “Tom, Dicke and Francis”. However, it first appears in the form we use today in 1657 when it was used by the English theologian John Owen addressing Oxford University and talking about who the fact that the “ordinary” man on the street was discussing ideas coming out of the university, “our critical situation and our common interests were discussed out of journals and newspapers by every Tom, Dick and Harry.”

It was common at that time to pair up common names such as Tom and Dick, Jack and Tom or even Tom and Tib to refer to the common man who is generic and unspecified and also follows an English rhetoric principle called a “tricolon”. This is where three words are used together to describe something and most commonly used in an ascending syllable order. Another example of this is “tall, dark and handsome”. 

This group of three names have often been used in English speaking culture and can be found in many books such as The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson, best known for Treasure Island, and even in TV series such as 3rd Rock from the Sun whose three main characters were given these names.

Perhaps the most interesting three-pack to be given these names were the three tortoises brought back to England in 1835 from the Galapagos Islands by Charles Darwin. “Harry” the tortoise was later renamed “Harriet” after being identified as a female and went on to live to the ripe old age of 175!

Harry / ˈhær.i


Welcome again to our weekly series that hopes to go behind the scenes of some rather typical English expressions.