Tom, Dick and Harry. Translation Article Knowledgebase

Articles about translation and interpreting
Article Categories
Search Articles

Advanced Search
About the Articles Knowledgebase has created this section with the goals of:

Further enabling knowledge sharing among professionals
Providing resources for the education of clients and translators
Offering an additional channel for promotion of members (as authors)

We invite your participation and feedback concerning this new resource.

More info and discussion >

Article Options
Your Favorite Articles
Recommended Articles
  1. overview and action plan (#1 of 8): Sourcing (ie. jobs / directory)
  2. Getting the most out of A guide for translators and interpreters
  3. Does Juliet's Rose, by Any Other Name, Smell as Sweet?
  4. The difference between editing and proofreading
  5. El significado de los dichos populares
No recommended articles found.
Popular Authors
  1. Patricia García Ces
  2. Miklos Tasnadi (X)
  3. traductorchile
  4. Ralf Lemster
  5. Natursprache
No popular authors found.

 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translation Techniques  »  Tom, Dick and Harry.

Tom, Dick and Harry.

By DLyons | Published  08/16/2011 | Translation Techniques | Recommendation:
Contact the author
Spanish to English translator

See this author's profile
This article was originally intended to be about possible translations of stereotypical English names into Spanish. It seemed natural to start with the phrase "Every Tom, Dick and Harry", and I got as far as "Fulano, Mengano, Zutano". Then the source material took over, and insisted on a different article entirely, a small case study on the wealth but unreliability of Internet sources and their comparison with traditional scholarly sources. This led me to a different language pair entirely and some related translation issues. Finally, I looked into possibly dating the phrase earlier than the 1734 found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) - this emphasized both the wealth of Internet sources and need for care in dealing with them.

And if that sounds overly academic, then be advised that there is passing reference to Astrologers, inflamed eyes, flogging and bare breasts!

The phrases "Every Tom, Dick and Harry" (everyone) and "Any Tom, Dick or Harry" (anyone) are very familiar to English speakers. To find out more about their origins, one must, of course, consult Wikipedia. This gives some interesting background:
"... the oldest 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.' "

Wikipedia refers us to its source, the Grammarphobia Blog of February 18, 2007, which took some pains to correct a blog-reader's misapprehension that the source was Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (1874). No indeed, the "... earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1734: 'Farewell, Tom, Dick, and Harry' ". But a keen-eyed anonymous Grammarphobia reader discovered the above pre-dating in God’s Statesman, Peter Toon's biography of Dr John Owen. And in February 2010, a keen-eyed editor, Green Cardamom, added this to Wikipedia, even finding its location, pg52, in the book.

Pity that the OED missed it, but nobody's perfect! Undoubtedly their next edition will catch up with the more rapid pace of online research.

Still, anything that casts doubt on the OED should be double-checked and God’s Statesman is online in Google Books. The above quotation is right there on page 52; so Internet 1 - OED 0. Game over!

Unfortunately, Google Books only allows restricted views of this book, but does give enough text to show that Toon was quoting from page 41 of a book entitled Oxford Orations whose metadata is easy to find online:
"The Oxford orations of Dr. John Owen / edited by Peter Toon; Publisher: Callington (Cornwall): Gospel Communication, 1971; 48 pp."
So far, so good, the book exists and should have a p41.

But reading on, lightning strikes:
"Translation from the original Latin of Complete collection of the sermons of J. Owen, 1721, supervised by John Glucker."

Oh dear, it was actually Glucker (or perhaps some poor post-grad team-member, the ubiquitous "Unknown Translator") who used 'Tom, Dick, and Harry' in 1971 for a Latin phrase which, horror of horrors, might even require a trip to a physical library to source. Google Translate has suggestions such as OMNES, UNUSQUISQUE, NEMO NON, QUILIBET; but ProZ readers know all about Google Translate! A score update now shows Internet 0.5 - OED 1, in extra time.

Fortunately, it turns out that there is an online, subscription-only, source for Owens' sermons, Eighteenth (18th) Century Collections Online ECCO. That gives us 734 closely-printed facsimile pages, many in Latin. With some effort, we find the original source phrase in Five Latin Orations when Vice-Chancellor of Oxford - specialiter, Oratio V: "De discrimine nostro fortunisque communibus ex astrologorum hemerologiis et chartis Mercurialibus disceptatum est inter lippos et tonsores" which Glucker's team translated as "Our critical situation and our common interests were discussed out of journals and newspapers by every Tom, Dick and Harry."
The Latin posed three interesting issues for the team:

  1. "astrologorum hemerologiis" was rendered as "journals". Here one needs to understand something of the context in which Owen was speaking. He was Vice-Chancellor of Oxford from 1652 to 1657, his Chancellor being Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. Although the English Civil War had just ended, there were still strong Royalist sympathies abroad and Charles Stuart would be restored to the Monarchy in 1660-1661.
    The Stuarts were believed to consult fortune-tellers (presumably hoping for some encouragement), hence the "astrologorum hemerologiis" (astrologers' calendars). Is "journals" a somewhat tame translation?

  2. "chartis Mercurialibus" became "newspapers". Mercury, the god of eloquence, commonly appeared in newspaper titles and, at the time Owen was writing, "a mercury" was used to mean a newspaper (many of which had Royalist leanings also).

  3. Eventually, we come back to our muttons, "lippos et tonsores" (people with inflamed eyes and barbers) was construed as "Tom, Dick and Harry". The Latin echoes Horace, Satire I 7, "omnibus et lippis notum et tonsoribus esse." Inflamed eyes were relatively common in Rome, and the physician's stall was a citizen's meeting point. Barbers' shops are well-known hotbeds of gossip. So this is a quite inventive, well-justified, translation; especially so as versions of the English phrase would have been current in the 1650's.

To finish, let us render due recognition, as far as possible at a forty-year remove, to the translation team which addressed those problems. When supervising the translation, John Glucker was in the Department of Classics in Exeter University. He went on to have a highly-respected academic career as Professor of Classical Philology and Philosophy in Tel-Aviv University.

Final score: Internet 1 - OED 1, in what turned out to be something of an exhibition game.

Endnote 1:
An authoritative-looking comment, probably from Jazzlord1, on the Wikipedia discussion page, pre-dates the phrase further to Martin Luther, ca1524, quoting "Nowadays ... every Tom, Dick and Harry imagines he understands the Bible and knows it inside out" Luther's Tischreden, no. 6008. Cited in Protestantism and Literacy in Early Modern Germany Author(s): Richard Gawthrop and Gerald Strauss Source: Past & Present, No. 104 (Aug., 1984), pp. 31-55.

But Green Cardamom is immediately on the ball: "Sounds apocryphal, German-language usage of the phrase is different from English, probably the result of a modern translation. We'd have to see the original German to verify."

Just as we had to see the original Latin!

Endnote 2:
Twenty-first century readers sometimes need reminding just how different the seventeenth century was. For example, Owen had many of the Puritanical leanings of the time and was very concerned with the discipline of Oxford scholars. At his last Comitia (the ceremonial culmination of the Academic Year), when he felt that a student terrae-filius (elected jester) was going too far, he sent the beadles to stop him. The scholars resisted, to the point that Owen himself waded in, pulled the offending scholar down, and had him sent to the Bocardo prison.

As he normally powdered his hair and wore snakebone bandstrings, a large set of ribbons and Spanish jack-boots with cambric tops, this would have been a colourful spectacle!

His own penchant for going in quirpo (bare-chested) did not extend to two Quaker girls, Elizabeth Fletcher and Elizabeth Holmes. Miss Fletcher was moved by the Inner Light to walk semi-naked through Oxford "for a sign". The young, all-male, body of scholars appear to have appreciated, but perhaps not fully understood, this leading of the Spirit. Owen had both girls flogged and expelled from the city.

Endnote 3:
Stirred by the excitement of the game, your author decided to go kick a ball around himself. What does Google Books have to say about Tom, Dick and Harry? Something quite interesting - what at first sight appears to be a pre-dating of the 1734 in the OED back to 1723! Videlicet, A Short and Easie METHOD with the DEISTS by Charles Leslie, 1723, p144, "... all Mankind were upon a Level, and that there was no such Thing as Government in the World; and that Tom, Dick, and Harry, ay, every individual Man, Woman, and Child, had a Right to the whole World ; ..."

One needs to be careful with Google Books, as the scanning software can misinterpret dates but, in this case, an inspection of the title page confirms the date.

Since Leslie died in 1722, and the above is the eighth edition of the book, one expects that some additional pre-dating should be possible - perhaps as far as to the work's first edition in 1697? The first edition is available in the subscription-only Early English Books Online but that shows no trace of Tom, Dick or even Harry! Were they inserted in some subsequent edition?

A more careful reading of the Google Book shows how much care is needed in this area - the quotation is contained in an insert to the book, entitled The speech of Mr. John Checkley, upon his tryal : at Boston in New-England, for publishing The short and easy method with the deists, and dated 1738. Curses! Foiled Again! The score remains tied at Internet 1 - OED 1

But hope still remains, that insert is of the second edition of the speech Checkley made at his trial in 1724. Hence, the possibility of pre-dating the OED's 1734 still remains open if we can locate the first edition.

The ECCO, Eighteenth (18th) Century Collections Online comes to the rescue again with the 39 pp, First Edition, printed for J Wilford in London in, drum roll, 1730. And, much to my relief, there are Tom, Dick and Harry on p12, for any subscribing Tom, Dick or Harry to see.

Internet 2 - OED 1? Or perhaps a Golfing metaphor is more appropriate, after 24 closely-fought rounds the current score is Internet 1730 - OED 1734.

Copyright ©, 1999-2021. All rights reserved.
Comments on this article

Knowledgebase Contributions Related to this Article
  • No contributions found.
Want to contribute to the article knowledgebase? Join

Articles are copyright ©, 1999-2021, except where otherwise indicated. All rights reserved.
Content may not be republished without the consent of