Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is Named Sam

Samuel Goldwyn? Roger Miller? Apocryphal?


Dear Quote Investigator: I noticed that the Wikiquote website lists one of my favorite funny sayings attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, the famous film producer [WSG]. In the version of the story I heard, a friend told Goldwyn that he wanted to honor the studio head by naming his son after him, but Sam responded without enthusiasm:

No, don’t do that. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is named Sam!

Wikiquote says that Goldwyn’s reply is unsourced, hence it is only listed on the discussion webpage. Can you find evidence that Goldwyn said it? Or can you determine who did say it?

Quote Investigator: There are many variants of this joke, but it is not clear whether Goldwyn ever uttered the gag line. Quotation expert Ralph Keyes notes that “inventing mangled comments to put in the mouth of the Polish-born movie mogul was a popular pastime during Goldwyn’s lifetime” [GQV].

The earliest instance of this anecdote that QI has located appeared in the Hollywood grapevine column of Jimmie Fidler in June of 1940 [JFG]:

A friend of Samuel Goldwyn asked the producer what he should name his new baby. Goldwyn pondered a moment, then suggested “Montmorency” as a possible and “high-sounding” monicker. “But Sam,” argued his friend, “don’t you think it would be better to call him something simple, like Bill or Joe?” “For heaven’s sake, no!” cried Goldwyn. “Why, every Tom, Dick and Harry in the country is named Bill or Joe!”

Two months later, in August of 1940 the columnist Leonard Lyons told another version of the tale that used the baby name William instead of Bill or Joe. Lyons also claimed that Goldwyn’s friend who inquired about names was the film director Ernst Lubitsch. Other variants of the story appeared in Hedda Hopper’s newspaper column, Boys’ Life magazine, Erskine Johnson’s column and elsewhere. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The Washington Post published Lyon’s version which, as mentioned, is one of the few that provides a name for Goldwyn’s interlocutor [LLG]:

Before Ernst Lubitsch’s child was born, Sam Goldwyn asked him: “What’ll you name the baby? … If it’s a boy, we’ll name him William,” Lubitsch informed “–because it’ll be very nice, calling my son Bob. Yes, I like that name. Bob” … Goldwyn unfazed by Lubitsch’s remarkable declaration that Bob is the diminutive of William, assured the director that he did not like such a name … “But William is a very nice name,” Lubitsch protested … “Oh, no,” Goldwyn assured him. “In these days, every Tom, Dick and Harry is called William.”

In August of 1943 the gossip specialist Hedda Hopper presented a distinctive twist to the tale. She contended that Goldwyn was not talking about a child’s name; instead, he was discussing the title of a motion picture. In her column Hopper was profiling a film star named Irene Dunne who was about to appear in a movie called “A Guy Named Joe” [HHG]:

And speaking of “A Guy Named Joe,” which she’s also doing, Sam Goldwyn thinks they could certainly get a better title for it. “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry was called Joe,” he says. “And,” says Irene, “I agree with him.”

In September of 1943 the quotemeister Bennett Cerf included a concise version of the tale in his column “Trade Winds” in the Saturday Review of Literature [BCG]:

A friend named his new-born son William. “Why William?” protested Mr. G. “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is named William!”

But Cerf was not satisfied with this statement, and in his popular book-length compendium of stories and quotes: “Try and Stop Me” he retold the anecdote. The parent of the child was described as a cousin and the wording was slightly altered [TSG]:

A cousin told him he had named his new baby William. “What did you do that for?” disapproved Goldwyn. “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry is named William.”

The variant in Boys’ Life in December 1944 contained no mention of Goldwyn, but QI thinks it shared a lineage with tales above. A young father decided to name his son Ulysses [BLU]:

A friend asked him why he hadn’t named his son some regular name like John, Bill or James.

“Oh,” he said, “every Tom, Dick and Harry is named John, Bill or James!”

In 1967 Billboard magazine noted the name of a song on this theme sung by “Smash Records star Roger Miller” [BBG]:

Then, strumming his guitar and backed by the 17-piece Louis Basil orchestra, Miller swings into such big selling records as “Engine Number Nine,” “Dang Me,” and “King of the Road.” He also introduces his newest recording, “Every Tom, Dick and Harry Is Named John.”

In 2003 Gene Shalit, the movie critic, presented the following variant about Goldwyn in his book “Great Hollywood Wit” [GSG]:

When the producer Arthur Hornblow Jr. told him that his newborn son would also be named Arthur: But why Arthur? Every Tom, Dick and Harry is called Arthur.”

In conclusion, Goldwyn has been identified with this humorous form of catachresis since 1940. But his out-sized personality attracted a large number of misattributions. QI does not know if Goldwyn actually said any one of these variants. The version using the name Sam appeared rather late. Thanks for your question.

[WSG] Wikiquote website, Discussion Page, Unsourced quote attributed to Samuel Goldwyn, “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry”. (Accessed 2011 March 21) link

[GQV] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 80, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[JFG] 1940 June 12, Oregonian, Jimmie Fidler in Hollywood, Page 3 (GB Page 19), Column 4, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)

[LLG] 1940 August 4, Washington Post, The New Yorker by Leonard Lyons, Page A4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

[HHG] 1943 August 7, Chicago Tribune, Looking at Hollywood by Hedda Hopper, Page 13, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)

[BCG] 1943 September 4, Saturday Review of Literature, Trade Winds by Bennett Cerf, Page 15, Saturday Review Associates Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)

[BLU] 1944 December, Boys’ Life, Think and Grin edited by Frank Rigney, Page 32, Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books full view)

[TSG] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 45, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)

[BBG] 1967 April 15, Billboard magazine, Miller and Shani Wallis–Contrasting Styles Succeed by Don Digilio, Page 24, Column 5, Nielsen Business Media, Inc. (Google Books full view)

[GSG] 2003, Great Hollywood Wit by Gene Shalit, Page 21, St. Martin’s Griffin Edition, New York. (Google Books preview)