NEW YORK - "If I were just a private citizen -- Joe Six-Pack --" President
Bill Clinton told Time magazine after Paula Jones's lawsuit was dismissed
by a judge in Little Rock, "I would have mixed feelings about not getting
a chance to disprove these allegations in court."
However, Clinton explained, he did not 'have mixed feelings
as president because he was not Joe Six-Pack and had to put the
nation's interests before his own.
This was not the first time Clinton used the subjunctive mood, or
presidential conditional, in speculation about what his reaction
would have been had he not been a resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Essentially, Clinton used a colorful modern locution to contrast his
highly responsible chief executive position with that of the average
person having pleaty of time to spare, whose name once was Everyone.
In Dutch and English morality plays of the l5th century, Everyman,
when called by Death, asked his fair-weather friends Beauty, Kindred and
Worldly Goods to accompany him, but they turned him down. One friend,
however, loyally agreed, and together Good Deeds and Everyman
Only the Devil has more aliases than the average person.
The Chinese call him Old Hundred Names, the Russians Ivan
Ivanovich, the French Monsieur Tout le Monde, the Germans Otto
Normalburger or Jederman, and the Dutch Elckerlijc. As
the man in the street he made his appearance in 1831 and was
popularized a decade later by Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay on
self-reliance, playing on John Bunyan's metaphor about the man with the
muckrake: "The man in the street does not know a star in the sky."
He signs checks John Doe (on a joint account with Jane Doe); the editor
William Allen White in 1937 called him John Q. Public, and in 1883
the Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner named him the forgotten
man, a moniker that Franklin Roosevelt adopted while campaigning for
president in 1932 (before beer was sold in cardboard containers of six
His first name soon changed to Joseph. The average Joe appeared as
Joe Blow (1867), Joe Doakes (1926), Joe College
(1932), GI Joe (1943) and, in Britain, Joe Bloggs (1969).
Though Joe Zilch (1925, probably a play on zero) and Joe
Schmo (1950, rhyming with hometown Kokomo) are derisive, Joe
Cool (1949) gets respect. This assumption that Joe is average seems
outdated because Joseph is a given name declining in vogue; if current
averageness were the criterion, we might expect the average Michael
or Brian Six-Pack.
A six-pack (which still takes a hyphen, but not for long), is a half-dozen
bottles or cans, often of beer, packaged to be purchased as a unit. Beer is
traditionally Everyman's alcoholic beverage, slurped up noisily or
chug-a-lugged breathlessly by those who sneer at effete elitists with
"Champagne tastes." Hence the affinity of the plebian Joe with the
symbol of beer purchased, in quantity, the six-pack, a word coined
Step aside, Geeks, writes Deborah Branscum in Newsweek. Internet
telephony is looking for Joe Six-Pack. (The writer contrasts the
high-technology geek with the average clumsy person.) In the same
way, Robert Luskin, a criminal defense attorney, was quoted in The
Washington Post as saying "You ought not to be indicting the president of
the United States fr things that you don't indict Joe Six-Pack
for." Obviously, Mr. Six-Pack has bellied up to the bar of usage
and elbowed aside John Q. Public and all the Joes.
Who invented him? The Oxford English Dictionary is silent; the Random
House Historical Dictionary of Amirican Slang has a citation in The Los
Angeles Times from as early as 1977.
"Herewith Joe Six-Pack's birth certificate, writes Martin Nolan,
the reporter and frequent writer on language at The Boston Globe. He
attaches an article in that newspaper dated August 28, 1970, about
Joe Moakley, then a state senator, who was campaigning against Louise Day
Hicks for the congressional seat held by Speaker John McCormack.
"Moakley plans to make Hicks the major issue in the campaign,"
wrote Nolan, then at The Globe's Washington bureau, "talking about issues
in the media and shouting in Joe Six-Pack's ear to wake up and face
the unsimplistic facts of life." The headline over the Nolan story was
"After the Soul of Joe Six-Pack."
"The guy I heard it from," writes Nolan, "now long dead, threatened to sue
if I quoted him. He must have known something. The initial mail in 1970
was all negative, accusing me of using Irish, (and Polish!)
And what happened to Joe Moakley? "He really does qualify as Joe
Six-Pack. Joe does not follow Beltway couture or cuisine and seems
the same as he ever was. He lost to Louise Day Hicks that year and had to
run as an independent in 1972, winning suburban votes to defeat her by
fewer than 3,500 votes.
"Thus, the heir to John McCormack, the protégé to Tip O'Neill
and the future chairman of the House Rules Committee began his career in
Congress as sort of a (gasp!) reformer."
Major coinage found, triggered by a president's use. A happy day.