Tom, Dick and Harry

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The phrase "Tom, Dick, and Harry" is a placeholder for unspecified people. [1] [2] The phrase most commonly occurs as "every Tom, Dick, and Harry", meaning everyone, and "any Tom, Dick, or Harry", meaning anyone, although Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable defines the term to specify "a set of nobodies; persons of no note". [3]


Similar expressions exist in other languages of the world, using commonly used first or last names. [4] The phrase is used in numerous works of fiction.


'Tizio, Caio e Sempronio' has long been used in Italian to describe a generic set of people. The phrase originated in Bologna during the Middle Ages, where a jurist, Irnerio, wrote of ‘Titius et Gaius et Sempronius’, originally Latin names which morphed into the Italian. The phrase is used the same was as Tom, Dick and Harry in English, or 'Pierre, Paul ou Jacques' in French, as a placeholder for a generic set of people. [5]

The precise origin of the phrase in English is unknown. The earliest known citation is from the 17th-century English theologian John Owen who used the phrase in 1657. [6] [7] 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." [6] [7] Pairs of common male names, particularly Jack and Tom, Dick and Tom, or Tom and Tib, were often used generically in Elizabethan times. [7] For example, a variation of the phrase can be found in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 (1597): "I am sworn brother to a leash of Drawers, and can call them by their names, as Tom, Dicke, and Francis." [7] [8]

The phrase is a rhetorical device known as a tricolon. The most common form of tricolon in English is an ascending tricolon, and as such the names are always said in order of ascending syllable length. Other examples of this gradation include "tall, dark, and handsome", "hook, line, and sinker", "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", "lock, stock, and barrel"; and so on.

In medicine

English-speaking medical students use the phrase in memorizing the order of an artery, and a nerve, and the three tendons of the flexor retinaculum in the lower leg: the T, D, A, N and H of Tom, Dick, and Harry correspond to tibialis posterior, flexor digitorum longus, posterior tibial artery, tibial nerve, and flexor hallucis longus. [9] This mnemonic is used to remember the order of the tendons from anterior to posterior at the level of the medial malleolus just posterior to the malleolus. [10]

A variation of this is Tom Dick And Very Nervous Harry. This corresponds to Tibialis, Digitorum, Artery, Vein, (tibial)Nerve, Hallucis.[ citation needed ]

Cultural influences

Tom, Dick and Harry is widely used, so it is beyond the scope of this article to list every passing mention. However, some notable instances include:

See also

Notes and references

  1. Shakespeare, William; Bevington, David (1998). Henry IV, Part 1. Oxford University Press. p. 178. ISBN   0-19-283421-5.
  2. Partridge, Eric (2006). The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Taylor & Francis. p. 1981. ISBN   0-415-25938-X.
  3. Brewer, E. Cobham (1978). Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Avenel Books. p. 1235. ISBN   0-517-25921-4.
  4. "Tom Dick and Harry - Other Tom Dick and Harrys". Retrieved 21 August 2017.
  5. Lionnel, Jessica (November 13, 2023). "Italian Expression of the Day: Tizio, Caio e Sempronio". The Local .
  6. 1 2 Peter Toon, God’s Statesman, pg. 52.
  7. 1 2 3 4 "Tom, Dick, and Harry", the Gramaphobia Blog, February 18, 2007
  8. William Shakespeare (1917) [1597]. "Act II"  . In Samuel B. Hemingway (ed.). Henry IV Part 1 . Yale University Press via Wikisource.
  9. "MedicalMnemonics". Medial malleolus: order of tendons, artery, nerve behind it. Archived from the original on 2009-08-04. Retrieved 2008-01-17.
  10. Netter, Frank H. (2011) Atlas of Human Anatomy , 5th Ed. Saunder: Philadelphia.
  11. ANGIE GANGI (June 23, 2006). "Harriet the Tortoise Dies at 175". ABC News. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  12. Stevenson, Robert Louis (21 August 1888). "The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses". Cassell. Retrieved 21 August 2017 via Google Books.
  13. "3rd Rock from the Sun (TV Series 1996–2001)". Retrieved 21 August 2017.

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