I don’t know him from Adam: phrases containing names

Maciej Toporowicz, NYC/Moment/Getty Images

by Liz Walter

Today’s post focuses on phrases that contain general personal names – there are a surprising number of them!

If you say that you don’t know someone from Adam, you mean that you don’t know them at all and don’t know who they are. We can use this phrase for men and women, though for a woman we might say something like don’t know someone from Eve/Adam’s wife:

Why would I let him stay in my house? I don’t know him from Adam. 

Similarly, the phrase all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, meaning that it’s good for us to have fun, could be changed to … makes Jill a dull girl. However, there is no common female equivalent of the British phrase a Jack the Lad, which means a very confident young man who doesn’t take life seriously and doesn’t care much about other people:

Put those books down, Lucas. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!

Her first boyfriend was a bit of a Jack the Lad.

A Johnny-come-lately is a rather critical term for someone who has only recently started doing something (especially if they are already successful), while the American term Johnny-on-the-spot is used for someone who is ready to do something, especially help someone, immediately:

We found our business threatened by this Johnny-come-lately.

There he was, Johnny-on-the-spot, ready with his tool box.

We sometimes use the phrase Tom, Dick and/or Harry in a rather negative way to mean ‘anyone’:

You need to send invitations. We don’t want any old Tom, Dick and Harry turning up.

British and American English both use the names of cartoonists famous for their eccentric and complex drawings as adjectives to describe crazy and over-complicated machines, inventions or systems. The British version is Heath Robinson and the American is Rube Goldberg:

The original method for attaching the motor was pretty Heath Robinson.

It’s a crazy, Rube Goldberg kind of device, but it works.

All the names up to this point have been male, but there are a few phrases with female names – all rather derogatory! A Plain Jane is a girl or woman who is ordinary looking and not beautiful, and a Contrary Mary is a girl or woman who often disagrees with other people or does the opposite of what other people want them to do. Finally, a Moaning Minnie is someone who complains a lot (not always a female!):

I felt such a Plain Jane when I was a teenager.

She insists on wearing a coat in this hot weather – she’s such a Contrary Mary.

Just eat your meal and stop being such a Moaning Minnie!

Do let us know about phrases with names in your own language! And look out for my next post, on phrases that contain place names.

43 thoughts on “I don’t know him from Adam: phrases containing names

  1. Gaynor

    Bob’s your uncle – meaning ‘there you have it, done, sorted’

    A more recent one, a female name but again with negative connotations ‘Karen’
    It’s used in phrases like
    – don’t be a Karen
    – she’s such a Karen
    A Karen is a kind of person who is unhappy when little things don’t go their way. They are seen as entitled.

      1. Lizz

        Doin Juan
        He’s a real Don Juan
        Meaning to be sarcastic often in saying that he is a very romantic guy but can be meant sincerely

    1. Maximilian Leoson

      In my variety of German we use quite a lot of phrases with names:
      – Sieht aus wie bei Hempels unterm Sofa. (Looks like under family Hempel’s couch).
      I don’t know the Hempels, but we use it for describing chaos in general.
      – Der sieht aus wie Karl Arsch. (Looks like Carl Ass).
      Just means that the person is not very attractive.
      – Die haben Hinz und Kunz eingeladen. (They invited Hinz und Kunz (apparently abbrevations of Heinreich and and Konrad/Konstantin). Alternatively, there is also a version with Heti and Pleti.
      I guess it’s like Tom, Dick and Harry.
      -Du Voll-Horst! (You complete Horst (it’s a male first name, e.g. our former president Horst Köhler)
      It’s an insult to somebody who’s a bit slow of the mark.
      – Die ist halt so ne richtige Babsi. (She’s a real Barbara. )
      A Babsi is a woman from the countryside who lives for baking, making decorations and the sort. Not exactly an insult. You can also call yourself Babsi (also as a man) if you want to make fun of your homieness.

      Haha… It’s fun thinking about these sayings.

  2. P J Abraham

    Thanks Ms Walter for illustrating the use of phrases/idioms that are commonly used across the native English-speaking world. I saw the phrase or idiom “Tom, Dick and Harry” as “Tom, Dick and Mary”. Don’t you think it is fair to have at least one woman in it, instead of three men? We live in a world where both sexes are treated fairly. What impressed me more is the tense used in the example sentences including situations and contexts. Unless the context is introduced, it could be fairly difficult to pin down the context where the phrase is commonly used.

  3. Pere Joan

    Sorry Liz but all those phrases do not seem to be modern, rather old-fashioned but it’s only a matter of opinion as I never ever heard/came across any of them. Do not get me wrong, I am sure, they are still in use all of them.

    1. Liz Walter

      I think it’s probably true that many of these more idiomatic phrases are used less by young people than the older generations, but there is still plenty of evidence for these in contemporary sources.

  4. Maryem Salama

    What a coincidence! I was recently thinking of how many idioms of names in my language, and I keenly wanted to suggest writing such a post on you

      1. Maryem Salama

        One of them uses my name (Maryem) in rhyme, but it is very difficult to translate, for the meaning is in the way we say it. I like this very much “who you may think of him as Moses turns up to be Pharaoh.” “Tajora, don’t you see Omar?” It is said when you point to something or someone cannot be noted in a big place. “I bought it from Bentaleb.” It is something you borrowed, not bought it. It is said by people when they want to avoid being embarrassed about using something usually expensive, but not theirs.

  5. Luigi Stendardo

    The Italian idiom “Bastian Contrario” is actually the very same of “Contrary Mary”, though it is a male name.

    1. Liz Walter

      I must admit, I’d never heard that version, but a Google search shows it does exist. It’s much less common though. Thank you!

  6. In Portuguese, there is the phrase “Maria vai com as outras” (lit. Mary go with the others), which is used to negatively describe a man or a woman that follow trends and cannot think about what’s better for himself.
    There is also “(dar uma de) João sem braço” (lit. John without arms), used for someone who has the capacity to carry out something, but hides his ability or pretends to be inept out of laziness, convenience or even necessity.
    All the expressions of this form I can remember of contain this two names: João (John) and Maria (Mary). However, there are also shorter expressions that are either just a name and a quality, mainly with the name “Zé”, a diminutive of “José”.
    “Zé mané” (from the double name “José Manuel”): stupid person. “Zé ruela”: lacking in action. “Zé povinho”: charactersless commoner, curious bystander, someone that talks about others’ life.
    There are many others too.

  7. We have something similar . This is not exact word-to-word phrase ‘ -You are so Vasia’. It means that person acted in very noticeably-silly way relatively to some one who is very important in specific circumstances (girlfriend, policmen, the main on your working place ) or made a huge mistake ( or was confused/mixed up) in any important event , action or deed: car repairing, wedding’s anniversary date , time of champions league’s final and so on. This phrase can be said only by men to men. They have to know each other otherwise it will be insult.

    1. Shari

      I didnt see any comment about “You don’t know Jack ” ….

      I’m pretty sure it was originally followed by a 4 letter word.

      An insult, meaning the person has little knowledge ( of anything).

      And how about a more up to date one…. “Bye Felicia”

      Insult meaning just go away, I don’t care what your name is.

      1. Liz Walter

        Ha ha, yes, I don’t like to include ‘rude’ words in these posts, which are intended for English learners, as I wouldn’t want to get anyone into trouble! And thanks for ‘Bye Felicia’ – I didn’t know that one, but I may well start using it!

  8. Let’s not forget Jimmy:

    The phrase “See you?” is a charming traditional Scottish preamble to warm and friendly conversation. “Jimmy”, due to the popularity of the name James in Scotland’s quainter districts, is a sort of John Doe, a wildcard for any random passer-by. Taken as a whole, “See you, Jimmy” is a warm opening to a folksy chat.

    See You Jimmy hat – Everything2.com

  9. Morrin

    In Russian, we can use the last name Pushkin (the great Russian poet’s name actually) in situations when you failed or don’t want to do something you have to, and no one but you should do it. E.g: ‘Who’s gonna shut the window? Pushkin?’; ‘Who’s gonna clean the cat’s toilet box? Pushkin?’

    Another name to refer to an everyman / average Joe, or an unknown person, often an isufficiently qualified one, is Vasya Pupkin (a shortened form of the name Vasiliy + the surname Pupkin derived from the word ‘pupok’ – ‘belly button’). ‘Well, I’m an experienced designer. And a Vasya Pupkin will tell me how to do my job? No way!’

  10. Denis

    Two thumbs up! 🙂
    I’d also like to add ‘as happy as Larry’ (primarily used by Brits and Australians, and it is thought that Larry is the undefeated boxer Larry Foley (1849-1917)) and ‘keep up with the Joneses’ that means to always want to own the same expensive objects and do the same things as your friends or neighbours, because you are worried about seeming less important socially than they are.

  11. Geoff McKeown

    I think it is a source of sadness that to accidentally or intentionally not associate, (often due to political correctness and popularist agendas), with the Hebrew Bible has led to an organisation with “Cambridge” in it’s title ignoring the obvious connection of the idiom with Adam in the Book of Genessis in that Bible. Furthermore, the meaning that should Adam stand next to the modern Homo Sapien, (Latin for wise man), there would be a striking similarity between the two appears to have been entirely overlooked. Taking likeness one step further, man, (and by implication Adam as the first man), was made in the image of God implying that if God, Adam and I were stood side-by-side the similarity would be immediately apparent. I would, at the very least, have expected “Cambridge .org” to have credited the source of the idiom in it’s attempt to define potential multiple meanings of the “Adam” idiom. It seems to be a modern preoccupation of some to not only rewrite, obscure and/or delete English history but also the English language, (including it’s meaning and etymology).

    1. Thank you for your comment. As a learner’s dictionary we do not offer etymologies, biblical or otherwise, in our dictionary entries or blog posts. As we like to keep our blog posts short, we feel it’s more beneficial to learners to cover meaning and usage. Thank you for your understanding.

      Best wishes

  12. Luís Almeida

    Although English is not my native language, I immediately remembered the phrase “Jack of all trades” after having read the title. I’m surprised they didn’t feature it!

  13. Bhagyashree Sonawane

    “Before we could say Jack Robinson”. It’s used to say that something’s said or done very quickly or suddenly before we could say or do anything.

  14. Valeriy

    There is such a Slavic expression “Любопытной Варваре на базаре носа оторвали” which literally means curious Varvara (female name) had her nose broken in the market. Its figurative meaning is preaching a very nosey person. The English equivalent is “Curiosity killed the cat”.

  15. Olga

    Don’t be Van’ka in Russian means don’t pretend to be a fool or stop being lazy or playing a fool. Actually the verb is different in this idiom but the meaning is the same.

  16. Liz Walter

    Apparently there are a number of theories about this: one is that it comes from the Australian word ‘larrikin’, meaning a bit of a rogue; another is that it is from a very successful boxer who won a lot of money.

    1. voodooguru

      As an Australian, I immediately thought of “larrikin” as a possible origin for “larry” but, having found the reference to the boxer, I thought I’d quote it in a reply but I meant it as a possible answer rather than the definitive answer.

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