FAST-US-7 'Names' in U.S. Popular Culture
Joe Six-Pack Bounces John Q. Public
William Safire, New York Times Service

FAST-US-7 (TRENAK15) United States Popular Culture (Hopkins)
Department of Translation Studies, University of Tampere

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 entered Heaven.

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 bottles).

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 in 1952.

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!) ethnic stereotypes.

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.

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Last Updated 27 April 2010