February 6, 2016

Whither "the man in the street" and "John Q. Public"?

The other day, talking to Meade, I made the stray observation: "Nobody says 'the man in the street' anymore."

It was a common colloquialism in news reports years ago. It's hard to take note of when something stops getting said. Decades could pass before you notice that something has disappeared from the language. Maybe the death of "the man in the street" began in the 1970s, with the success of the women's movement, as it became less and less possible for mainstream folks to convince themselves that "man" includes woman. Perhaps there was a transitional period in which reporters — perhaps literally in the street with their microphones seeking random comments from passersby — said "the man — or woman — in the street," before that got old and sounded corny and then nobody ever said it again.

Yesterday, Meade and I were watching "Jeopardy!" It's "College Championship" time and all the players are college students. The board full of answers in need of questions is stocked with things that younger people know — pop singers, movie superheroes, school-level math, history, and science and so forth. The kids buzz in and get many questions right. But yesterday, they had an answer that drew absolutely vacant stares and even puzzlement when Alex Trebek revealed the question. The answer was: The middle initial of John Public. The question: What is Q? I laughed a lot, because I could see that from the kids' perspective, that was just some weird nonsense.

Nobody says "John Q. Public" anymore. Like "man in the street," the term embodies the general  public in a single person. This time, that person has a name, John Q. Public. I'm going to assume, it's gone away because we won't accept the idea that the public can be personified as a male, and that also means the whole idea of the general public as one person just doesn't work anymore. If there was ever a period when people adapted to changing times by saying, cutesily,  "John Q. — and Jane Q. — Public," I missed it.

Now, it just seems goofy, I suppose, to people who don't remember the common usage, to hear that John Public has a middle initial and it's Q. What's the Q for? From the OED:
1937   N. & Q. 6 Mar. 177/2   ‘John Citizen’..is not so frequent in American usage as ‘John Q. Public’... It is probably a play on the name of an early president, John Q(uincy) Adams.
I think it's more like Jesus H. Christ. An initial just seems funny. And if you want funny, there's no funnier letter than Q.

As for Jesus H. Christ, well, what's that about? Hilariously, there's a Wikipedia entry for Jesus H. Christ — which, you may realize, is "a vulgarism" that "is not used in the context of Christian worship." Mark Twain referred to it in his autobiography as typical of "the common swearers of the region," so the usage goes way back. Some people attribute it to "the first three letters of the Greek name of Jesus (Ἰησοῦς)... transliterated iota-eta-sigma, which can look like IHS." There's also an idea that the H is for Harold — from mishearing "hallowed be thy name" the Lord's Prayer as Harold be thy name.

IN THE COMMENTS: Paddy O said "Monty Python had man in the street segments":

48 comments:

Pat Perreca said...

Wasn't Q also a character in Star Trek Next generation?. I wonder if that answer would also have been acceptable and maybe even more likely from the students.

madAsHell said...

My daughter has the initials QQJ.

whswhs said...

When I was young there was at least one science popularization that referred to its audience figure as "Mr. T. C. Mits," standing for "The Celebrated Man In The Street." I've always liked that. I think it might have been by George Gamow. . . .

traditionalguy said...

The first Today Show used a segment called the man on the street interview and a crowd shot. They were desperate for programming, any programming, back then. And the announcers all talked slow to fill in time.

Fred Drinkwater said...

But as far as I know, poor old Joe Sixpack didn't even HAVE a middle name.
I know, Althouse can do a poll! Saturday morning excitement on the West Coast!

Paddy O said...

Monty Python had man in the street segments

pm317 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
khematite said...

When I was in college, the "H" in "Jesus H. Christ" was often said to stand for "Haploid." Maybe I hung around with too many biology students.

As for "the man in the street," this was a regular feature of the Steve Allen tv show. Who could forget the immortal trio of Louis Nye, Tom Poston, and Don Knotts? Not to mention the later-added Dayton "Why Not!" Allen.

pm317 said...

Nobody says "John Q. Public" anymore.

If you watched Jeopardy last night, you would have heard it.

Paddy O said...

I've always consoled myself with the supposed vulgarism by thinking how middle initials are used to distinguish between people with the same names. George Bush was Reagan's VP? George HW Bush, that is.

So, Jesus H. Christ is swearing but not necessarily profane, because they're emphasizing they're talking about some other Jesus, not the one we know from the Bible.

khematite said...

OpenID whswhs said...
When I was young there was at least one science popularization that referred to its audience figure as "Mr. T. C. Mits," standing for "The Celebrated Man In The Street." I've always liked that. I think it might have been by George Gamow. . . .


That was Mr. Tompkins. To give credit where it's due, Mr. T.C. Mits was the creation of
an under-recognized mathematician, Lillian Rosanoff Lieber (1886-1986), chair of the math department at Long Island University until she retired in 1950.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lillian_Rosanoff_Lieber

Hagar said...

Who was Andrew Russel Pearson?

Fernandinande said...

Google ngram shows "man in the street" peaked at about 1940, is now (well, 2000) down to the same level as in 1895.

Laslo Spatula said...

John Q. Public alluded to the idea that there was a commonality of the American People, despite disagreements.

The concept of America in which John Q. Public resided no longer exists.

What is one concept of America that a majority of people today would agree upon?

The First Amendment? See Althouse's Post on Lena yesterday.

Freedom? You mean that Patriarchal Phrase for Oppression?

Democracy? In a land where many support unelected regulators and bureaucrats to do what they wish as long as it is on their side?

John Q. Public is gone. So is that America.

I am Laslo.

Jeff said...

Oh come on now. Everybody knows His full name is Jesus Hussein Christ.

Michael K said...

My grandfather's favorite swearing expression was "Judas Priest !"

R. Chatt said...

"Harold be thy name." That's very funny.

MisterBuddwing said...

Although "man in the street" was a little before my time, I'd always taken it to mean the reporter, not the passersby. ("And now let's go to reporter John Doe, our Man in the Street... ")

JSD said...

“Man in the Street” became Angry White Man. He was briefly supplanted by “Soccer Mom”, but she drove an eco-evil minivan. So she became “Security Mom”, but that was a little bit racist. “Hockey Mom” tried to save the day, but Community Organizer Man banished her to the Northern Wilderness. Now all the moms suffer from RBF (resting bitchface) and the men sit on the porch and shout "Get off my lawn!".

rehajm said...

Fernandinande said...
Google ngram shows "man in the street" peaked at about 1940, is now (well, 2000) down to the same level as in 1895.


Yah, I as going to like to the Ngram Viewer. Great fun to be had there. Interesting is the large spike in men in the street between 1940 and 1941. What went on there?

oleh said...

How about Cleese as Gumby doing a Trump impersonation in that clip.

pm317 said...

I once consulted a doctor whose name was Robert Ahmed -- regular white American whose family has been here for generations. I asked him why the name and he laughed and said his ancestors were from Turkey and that he was well covered (by both religions).

pm317 said...

That Google ngram thing said 'nuanced" was peaking around 2000 and still going. Thanks, progressives and obamabots.

n.n said...

It, Them, Serfs... The men and women in the street have traditionally been accorded different designations by their superiors in the Ivory Towers, Fourth Estate, minority landlords, and democratic bureaus.

rehajm said...

More Ngram fun:

It was a tough battle, but it's almost over.

Writ Small said...

We're only going to have terms like "Joe Sixpack" going forward. John Q Public is gone for good, but not (just) for gender sensitivity reasons.

The few channels in the era of network television meant that news and entertainment was homogenized for general consumption giving an impression of a common culture. Going back further, college educations were more about having money and family connections. That meant high and low IQ's were more evenly distributed across all kinds of professions.

These days, the smart and industrious are efficiently filtered through standardized testing into the most cognitively demanding professions. Meanwhile, entertainment and news is highly customizable such that many of us inhabit comfortable James Taylor-like echo chambers gently shaping and reinforcing our pre-held views.

We not only don't identify with the concept of a generalized representative of a person like John Q. Public, we focus on further subdividing our own narrow groups ("establishment" versus "true", etc.) and grossly stereotyping those on the outside.

John Q. Public made sense in the well-blended, shared culture of the 50's thru the 90's. Today, even Joe Sixpack, a term that deliberately excludes lots of Americans, seems overly broad.

Gahrie said...

The other day, talking to Meade, I made the stray observation: "Nobody says 'the man in the street' anymore."

It is because today's MSM has absolute contempt for "the man in the street" or "John Q. Public". They simply aren't interested in the average person's opinion or knowledge except as something for them to mold.

Mark Caplan said...

We're a lot more conscious of homeless people today and there are a lot more of them, at least where I live. So "the man in the street" evokes images of vagrants pushing overloaded shopping carts piled high with their bagged belongings.

Michael McClain said...

The term "Main Street" seems to have replaced "Man-in-the-Street". Obviously, "Main Street" is gender neutral while "Man-in-the-Street" is a relic from the patriarchal sexist past.

Michael K said...

"We're a lot more conscious of homeless people today and there are a lot more of them,"

There are a lot of them and in the 50s they were mostly in insane asylums. Those asylums were emptied out in the 60s and any talk about doing something about mental health will stir up angry comments even in the Wall Street Journal. Lots of angry comments to that article.

60% of homeless are psychotic according to homeless shelter directors. Mots of the rest are alcohol or drug addicts.

Michael said...

A great anti-achievement of the Progressive movement and world-view is that it is no longer easily possible to think of the American People as a group whose common interests overshadow their particular interests. We will know we are back on track when that way of thinking once more comes naturally.

Chuck said...

I am surprised that anyone from Madison would not be thinking of the John Q. Public of the 21st century; The Onion's "area man."

http://www.theonion.com/article/area-man-self-conscious-about-all-the-wrong-things-37135

https://books.google.com/books?id=OoRUtDM9nWkC&pg=PT86&lpg=PT86&dq=the+onion+area+man&source=bl&ots=1WD6PS2V95&sig=i7IYtkHj0QZKTWdxBgBw29s5c3Q&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjMnOT45ePKAhUBNSYKHTmUAqs4ChDoAQg5MAQ#v=onepage&q=the%20onion%20area%20man&f=false

William said...

John Q. Public used to appear frequently in editorial cartoons. He was middle aged, balding, and of middling height. He wore a white shirt and suit trousers whose pockets were pulled inside out to show that he had been thoroughly fleeced by the government. He was invariably white......Is it racist to assume that fleeced taxpayers are white? Perhaps so. He no longer exists as a cartoon stereotype........There's a cartoon stereotype for piggy cops, bullet headed militarists, and fat cat bankers. Why is there no stereotype for invasive government bureaucrats?

richlb said...

Monty Python also had "women in the street" bits, although true to Python form, they were actually men.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

"Here's what some random joker sent us over Twitter" has placed "here's what some guy we bumped into on the street" as the go-to for local newscasts.

Charlie Currie said...

I remember hearing people use the phrase, Holy Christ, or Holy Cow when not wanting to be to profane. So I had always thought the "H" was for Holy...Jesus Holy Christ.

Steve Allen also did the "Man ON the Street" with Don Knox as Mr. Morrison, Louis Nye as Gordon Hathaway, Tom Poston as the man who could never remember his name, Pat Harrington as Guido Panzini and Bill Dana as Jose Jimenez.

Some people stand on line, while others stand in line.

Smilin' Jack said...

Hilariously, there's a Wikipedia entry for Jesus H. Christ...

Much more hilarious is the entry for Jesus F. Christ at the Uncyclopedia.

Ann Althouse said...

"If you watched Jeopardy last night, you would have heard it."

For the annals of Commenters Who Didn't Read the Post.

Fernandinande said...

Chuck said...
The Onion's "area man."


I was an Area Man and all I got was this
lousy t-shirt.

Then there's Florida man.

From Dave Barry:
Florida Man accidentally butt-dials 911 while cooking meth with his mom.
Florida Man accused of catching and eating protected tortoises.
Florida Man arrested after limping from pawn shop with AK-47s stuffed down his pants
Florida Man arrested after urinating on in-law's carpet during Thanksgiving gathering.
Florida Man arrested for punching 80-year-old man at Applebee's.
Florida Man arrested for smoking pot in hospital maternity ward.
...hundreds more...

Marc Puckett said...

Charlie Currie at 3:05 correctly, according to what I recall of older people when I was younger, identifies the H. Southwestern Ohio, 1950s.



The Godfather said...

I remember "the man in the street" interviews from my youth -- and I wasn't even "a gleam in my father's eye" in 1940, so I'm confident that this usage continued through the 1950's and probably into the 1960's.

The English have "the man on the Clapham omnibus" as their everyman (everyperson) representative, but my understanding is that the Clapham bus man represents not so much the common opinion as the judgment or knowledge of normal regular folk -- somewhat akin to US lawyers' "reasonable man".

pm317 said...

For the annals of Commenters Who Didn't Read the Post.

LOL, I anticipated you might complain about my comment. I read the post before commenting but could not pass up the coincidence of you writing that post (which could broadly be interpreted as 'why don't we hear that phrase anymore'? and me 'hearing' it on Jeopardy just last night. And I got the Q right and the contestants didn't. It was the college edition with 18-20 year-olds.

The Godfather said...

Oh, and by the way, Q was a James Bond character, and I'm sure that doesn't go back to the Dark Ages. Early 21st Century I'd guess. The kollege knowledge kidz parents could have told them about it.

Fred Drinkwater said...

So if there's no more John Q. Public because the US is not a melting pot anymore,but now a tossed salad instead, what happens (or has already happened) to the legal concepts surrounding the "reasonable man" standard?

Patrick Henry said...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=io0oxIft1E8 - The Crazy8's have split up as a band.

bgates said...

"Nobody says 'the man in the street' anymore."

Likewise "Don't make a federal case out of it", "If we can put a man on the moon", and "It's a free country".

postscript said...

When I read this post, my first thought was: isn't it "man-on-the-street?" Men in the street should be asked only for dying declarations. A little googling shows both prepositional phrases are common, although it seems "man on the street" is the somewhat more prevalent usage.

Or was.

William R. Hamblen said...

"Jesus H Christ" is sort-of Greek: Iesous ho Christos (Jesus the Christ).