What do you call someone whose identity you don’t know? What about someone who doesn’t exist? How do you refer to someone whose name you can’t quite remember? These and other, similar, sorts of linguistic situations, each subtly different from the others, are surprisingly common—and they’ve given rise to an amazing panoply of pseudo or quasi-names.
You can say a selective employer “won’t hire just any Tom, Dick or Harry”—or “any Joe Blow” or “Joe Schmoe.” A Hispanic name that expresses ordinariness to the point of anonymity is Juan Pérez—akin to “John Smith.” In a somewhat more formal vein, advertising and government language often makes use of a fictitious “John Q. Public” and, somewhat less commonly, “Jane Q. Public.”
The heritage of Arabic, which medieval Spanish speakers lived cheek-to-jowl with for eight centuries (to A.D. 1492), gave the language such anonymous or “placeholder” names as Fulano (or Fulano de Tal), Zutano, and Mengano. Their sisters might be Fulana, Zutana, and Mengana. There are many others.
What if someone’s name is on the tip of your tongue? English has “What’s-his-name” or, even less elegantly, “What’s-his-face” or the potentially insulting “So-and-so.”
Coso in some Spanish-speaking countries can refer to someone in this situation (or when the thing you can’t quite remember is the name of an object—as in English “thing-a-ma-jig”). Fulanito and Fulanita can serve the same function for a person.
When you want to wash your hands of something, as in “Let George do it”, Argentine and Uruguayan Spanish offers a series of funny names: Que lo haga Magoya (Let Magoya do it). This imaginary sucker is also called Montoto, Mongo, or Mongo Aurelio.
These characters can reappear when you don’t believe a word someone’s saying: Andá a contarle a Magoya (Go tell it to Magoya). Or—and here the name’s not anonymous, but the phrase expresses the height of futility—Andá cantarle a Gardel (Go sing to Gardel), the greatest tango singer of all time. An English equivalent, popular from around the Spanish-American War to World War I, but still used: “Tell it to the Marines.”
Yet another situation where we come up with a quasi-name is when we prefer not to overtly identify someone, but speaker and listener are both well aware of who’s being discussed—indeed, this person may himself or herself be present: “You-know-who got up on the wrong side of bed today,” which in Spanish might go this way: Uno (or female Una) que yo sé se levantó con el pie izquierdo.
Finally, the reverse also happens: we use the name of a real person to designate a category of persons. Phrases like “The Lebron Jameses and the Kobe Bryants of the world” are much used in English, though not absent from Spanish: Los Lebron James y los Kobe Bryant del mundo.
Good words! / ¡Buenas palabras!
Copyright ©2015 by Pablo J. Davis. All rights reserved.
Pablo Julián Davis, PhD, CT is a Certified Translator (ATA/American Translators Association) eng>spa and a Certified Interpreter (Tennessee State Courts) eng<>spa, as well as a recognized trainer in the fields of translation, interpreting, and cultural competence. He has over 25 years experience in these fields. An earlier version of this column was written for the Feb. 22-28, 2015 edition of La Prensa Latina (Memphis, Tennessee) as part of his bilingual weekly column Mysteries & Enigmas of Translation/Misterios y Enigmas de la Traducción.