QUESTION: How did the terms John Doe and Jane Doe come to mean an unidentified person who had died?

ANSWER: The terms have their roots in 14th century England, according to my favorite reference book in the Longview Public library, “The Facts on File Encyclopedia Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins.”

“John Doe is the oldest and most common of names for the average American,” the dictionary says. “Jane Doe not heard nearly as much.”

John Doe started being used in England as a substitute name on legal documents and morphed into a reference to the common man.

“Jane Doe was first recorded as his female counterpart in the late 1930s,” the dictionary says.

And the generic names have been used in movies referring to that common man, for instance, and are are used in all sorts of legal documents.

For instance, I found a New York Times article from 1995, following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, that said, “Searching for the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City bombing, the F.B.I. issued warrants for ‘John Doe No. 1’ and ‘John Doe No. 2.’ After the quick identification and accusation of Timothy McVeigh, a second John Doe remained at large,” the article says. “Why do we call him that? Why not ‘Mr. X’ or ‘Suspect Unknown’? The answer is in the deep recesses of English legal tradition.

“Under the Magna Charta in 1215, two witnesses were needed for legal action; to protect their identities, substitute names were often placed on documents. Two of the most often-used names appeared in landlord-tenant disputes: the plaintiff protesting eviction, or ‘ejectment,’ was called John Doe and the defendant landlord was listed as Richard Roe.”

SIDENOTE: Speaking of the Longview Public Library, the Friends of the Longview Public Library are conducting a summer book sale 10 a.m.-5 p.m. through Friday. Books, movies magazines and other items are included.

The Friends use the money to improve the library with the purchase of new technology, including kiosks and computers, to support programs in the library and provide building improvements and furniture. Items are $1 each, with specials on Thursday and Friday. Cash, check and credit/debit cards are accepted.

Q: A large plane flew over the Walmart on Fourth Street a couple of weeks ago? What was it?

A: Thank you for the photo you sent. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to reproduce well (it’s hard to photograph a plane flying high in the air!), but it sounds like it was probably an Air Force Airborne Warning and Control system plane. It’s used by the Air Force, and those planes have come through this area before on training missions. They are unusual looking.

This Air Force website says the plane provides, “integrated command and control battle management, or C2BM, surveillance, target detection, and tracking platform. The aircraft provides an accurate, real-time picture of the battlespace to the Joint Air Operations Center. AWACS provides situational awareness of friendly, neutral and hostile activity, command and control of an area of responsibility, battle management of theater forces, all-altitude and all-weather surveillance of the battle space, and early warning of enemy actions during joint, allied, and coalition operations.”

The E-3 Sentry, as it’s called, “is a modified Boeing 707/320 commercial airframe with a rotating radar dome. The dome is 30 feet (9.1 meters) in diameter, six feet (1.8 meters) thick, and is held 11 feet (3.33 meters) above the fuselage by two struts. It contains a radar subsystem that permits surveillance from the Earth’s surface up into the stratosphere, over land or water. The radar has a range of more than 250 miles (375.5 kilometers). The radar combined with an identification friend or foe, or IFF, subsystem can look down to detect, identify and track enemy and friendly low-flying aircraft by eliminating ground clutter returns that confuse other.”

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— Answer Line appears Thursday and Saturday. Email questions to, leave a message at (903) 232-7208 or write to P.O. Box 1792, Longview, TX 75606.

Jo Lee Ferguson wishes she kept her maiden name - Hammer - because it was perfect for a reporter. She’s a local girl who loves writing about her hometown. She and LNJ Managing Editor Randy Ferguson have two children and a crazy husky.