Famous Sayings #183 — ‘Every Tom, Dick, and Harry’

March 14, 2020

Every Tom, Dick, and Harry believes that he can become rich. If everyone were rich, no one would be.

Three men thinking, one wearing a wristwatch
I’m not sure if these men’s names are Tom, Dick, and Harry, but they’re three guys, so … Image cropped. Original photograph by Szilárd Szabó from Pixabay.

This is an interesting expression to look at because it involves three male names that were once very popular. Thy are still common English names because chances are you have met a Tom, Dick, or Harry in your lifetime if you live in an English-speaking country.

Have you used this expression? I don’t believe I have, but I was introduced to it in my childhood.


What Does ‘Every Tom, Dick, and Harry’ Mean?

When someone uses the phrase “every Tom, Dick, and Harry,” they are referring to anyone and everyone and no one in particular. Two alternative phrases to “Tom, Dick, and Harry” are “every mother’s son” and “every man Jack.” Often, “Tom, Dick, and Harry” refers to ordinary people. Thus, when someone says something like, “We don’t want every Tom, Dick, and Harry to know,” they are saying that they don’t want “just anyone” to know certain information (like a secret).

Also, although the names are nicknames for Thomas, Richard, and Henry, respectively, the phrase doesn’t necessarily refer to males exclusively (McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs Via). Sometimes, people use variants like “Any Tom, Dick, and Harry” or “Any Tom, Dick, or Harriet.” The names used were vary common, thus the phrase refers to ordinary people in general (Collins).

The expression is normally used in derogatory contexts to refer to a multitude of people. In harsh terms, people who use the phrase “Every Tom, Dick, and/or Harry” may be referring to individuals who hold no special value to them. This is true of unnamed people (Farlex).

In other cases, “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry” refers to social status. If we are including everyone, we are also including people of low social status, i.e., “the common herd” (The Dictionary of Cliches by Christine Ammer).


Who Coined the Term ‘Every Tom, Dick, and Harry’?

The origin of this expression isn’t clear, but it may date back as far as the 16th or 17th century.

According to the Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary, the expression “Tom, Dick, and Harry” was first recorded in an 18th-century song entitled, “Farewell, Tom, Dick, and Harry. Farewell, Moll, Nell, and Sue.”

However, According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms by Christine Ammer, this phrase may date back to Shakespeare, who used “Tom, Dick, and Francis” in Act II, Scene 4 of Henry IV, Part 1 (1563). Prince Henry said the following:

Sirrah, I am sworn brother
to a leash of drawers; and can call them all by
their christen names, as Tom, Dick, and Francis.

The Grammarphobia blog cites John Owen as providing an early use of the phrase as we know it.  In 1657, the English theologian said to 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.”

The phrase’s current meaning may date back to the early 19th century (The Dictionary of Cliches by Christine Ammer). An early reference of “Tom, Dick, and Harry” comes from the 1815 Farmer’s Almanack:

He hired Tom, Dick, and Harry, and at it they all went.

In 1818, John Adams used the phrase in its current meaning:

Tom, Dick, and Harry were not to censure them.


Did You Know?

Here are a few facts tied to “Tom, Dick, and Harry”:

  • The expression is what is known as a tricolon. This rhetorical device often involves names that are listed in ascending syllable length; these are called ascending tricolons. For example, “tall, dark, and handsome” has three words, two of which have one syllable and the last of which has two syllables. “Hook, line, and sinker” has this same structure (Wikipedia).
  • During Elizabethan times, pairs of male names, like Jack and Tom, were used to generically refer to unspecified people.
  • In 1835, Charles Darwin brought back three Galapagos Island tortoises to English about the HMS Beagle. He named them Tom, Dick, and Harry. However, “Harry” was a female; when this was discovered, her name was changed to Harriet. She lived in captivity in Australia until she died in 2006. She lived for 175 years.
  • Three of the main characters in 3rd Rock from the Sun were called Tommy, Dick, and Harry Solomon. They were portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, John Lithgow, and French Stewart, respectively (IMDb).

Works Cited

“Any/every Tom, Dick, and Harry.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/any%2Fevery%20Tom%2C%20Dick%2C%20and%20Harry.

“Every Tom Dick and Harry.” British Broadcasting Company (BBC), Last Updated 19 February 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/language/theenglishwespeak/2013/02/130219_tews_111_every_tom_dick_and_harry.shtml. Retrieved 14 March 2020.

“Every Tom, Dick, and Harry – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc., https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/every+Tom%2c+Dick%2c+and+Harry. Accessed 14 March 2020.

“Henry IV, part 1: Entire Play.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. MIT, http://shakespeare.mit.edu/1henryiv/full.html. Accessed 14 March 2020.

Kellerman, Stewart and O/Conner, Patricia T. “Tom, Dick, and Harry.” Grammarphobia, 18 February 2007, https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2007/02/tom-dick-and-harry.html. Retrieved 14 March 2020.

“Tom, Dick, and Harry – Idioms by The Free Dictionary.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc., https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/Tom%2c+Dick%2c+and+Harry. Retrieved 14 March 2020.

Various Authors. “3rd Rock from the Sun (TV Series 1996–2001).” Internet Movie Database (IMDb), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115082/. Accessed 14 March 2020.

Various Authors. “Tom, Dick and Harry.” Wikipedia, Last Updated 21 February 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom,_Dick_and_Harry. Accessed 14 March 2020.

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