Column: Putting people in their places


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

You probably know about placeholder names, even if you don’t know that’s what they’re called. That’s the whole point. Whether you’re intentionally or unintentionally being nonspecific about something, chances are you’re using a placeholder name.

Take names, for example. You know when you just can’t put your finger on someone’s name? We fill in the blank with Suzy Q, or whatshername. In marketing and legal documents, you might see John or Jane Doe, or perhaps their second cousin, Joe Schmoe. My favorite person placeholder name is what’s-his-head.

Let’s take a moment to talk business. When it comes to placeholder names relating to business and products, we can list a whole slew of them. It doesn’t matter if your company makes gadgets, gizmos, widgets or thingamajigs — they make doohickeys or whatchamacallits over there. You know what’s-his-head — he works over at Acme making doodads.

We find placeholder names in the world of living things. For instance, “bug” is a catch-all term for any insect. Similarly, “critter” is a ubiquitous word for an animal. If that animal becomes unruly or starts knocking over your trash cans, it might classify as a “varmint.”

Let’s not leave out everyone’s favorite animal, humans. When we refer to someone generically, we’re using a placeholder name. From formal terms like Sir, Madam, Mr. and Ms. to colloquial phrases like bro, babe, honey or amigo, we use placeholder names instead of someone’s actual name.

For me, there’s a certain type of guy who will always use diminutive placeholder names instead of your real name: buddy, chief, sport, pal or my man. To the guy who refers to me in those terms, I’d like to say this: I am none of those things to you.

The world of computer programming has its own language around placeholder names. A metasyntactic variable is a placeholder term that doesn’t otherwise violate the language the code or sequence is written in. Common metasyntactic variables include foo, bar, baz, waldo, fred and thud. The names don’t matter and will be replaced later.

It’s about time we discussed placeholder names for time. For instance, the 11th hour refers to the latest possible time. It doesn’t matter what time it was — it was in the 11th hour. Similarly, the crack of dawn is the earliest possible time you can wake up in the morning. What time is it when you want to go get drinks with friends? Either wine o’clock or beer 30, depending on your drink of choice.

Placeholder names are everywhere, whether you live in Anytown, USA, or out in the sticks, just north of the boondocks. Thanks for reading, pal.