Who’s John Doe in Germany? Posted by Sten on Jul 28, 2020 in Culture, Language
If you don’t want to keep somebody’s name anonymous or if you simply need a placeholder, a common name to use is John Doe for men and Jane Doe for women, or Joe Bloggs or John Smith… There’s quite a list. How do we do it in Germany?
The “Example Man”
In Germany, we almost always use two simple ones: Max Mustermann for men and Erika Mustermann for women. Mustermann means “example man” or “model man”, since it is a name used as a placeholder. Sometimes you also see Otto Normalverbraucher (Otto “Normal Consumer”). We’ve written about placeholder names before, see this post for more examples!
Unlike English, the name isn’t chosen for how popular it is. Mustermann is a rare name, and is easily recognised in Germany as the placeholder. For a real Max Mustermann, that actually led to people asking whether it was his real name. Apparently, there are multiple Erika Mustermann as well.
The most famous use of this example name is the Personalausweis (identification card) that every German has. Because these are updated every few years, there are new versions of Max Mustermann and Erika Mustermann all the time. However, the most famous is Erika Mustermann, since she has been used consistently in all kinds of government IDs, from soldiers to diplomats to Flüchtlinge (refugees). While all other Ausweise say she was born in Berlin, the Flüchtlingsausweis states Damaskus as the Geburtsort (place of birth).
At first, Erika was born in München (Munich), not Berlin. She was 1.76 meters in height, though she later shrank to 1.72 meters and even 1.60 meters. In 1983, her birth date was September 12, 1945. There is particularly special about this day, it is probably just a random date that was chosen after the Second World War. In 1997, this changed to August 12, 1957; since about 2001, it’s August 12, 1964). Her home is in the Heidestraße 17 in München, though that changed too. In 1986 and 1997, she lived in the Nußhäherstraße 10 in München, in 2007 back in the Heidestraße 17, though now in Köln (Cologne). 2008 she lives in Berlin, 2010 again in Köln. Her picture changed multiple times over this period. The woman on the picture is not a real Erika Mustermann, of course.
Giving some real information, including a picture of an actual real person, naturally creates some mystique. Erika Mustermann received Liebesbriefe (love letters), and many joking articles have been written about the relationship between Erika and Max. My favourite is one from Der Postillon. It explains that after 14.9 years of Ehe (marriage), Erika left Max for John Doe, who she met at an internationale Reisepassmesse (international passport convention). She now lives with John in Miami, while Max takes care of their 1.56 children.
Who exactly is behind the picture is not clear, but since 1987 it is the same woman that decorates the model ID card.
What about “Example Woman”?
Frau Mustermann (Mrs Mustermann) is known as Mustermann, geb. Gabler (Mustermann, born Gabler). This means that she took on the name of her husband Max Mustermann. The example chosen for Germany is therefore the traditional image of a married woman. Not everybody is happy with that, and you sometimes see the term Musterfrau used, without a “born” label.
In Switzerland and Austria, the last name Musterfrau for their examples is commonplace. Though their first names are different: Maria in Austria and Alexandra in Switzerland.
While the Personalausweis only makes up some of the information, any non-governmental examples often go all-out. Musterstraße 1 (model street), Musterstadt (model city) and postal code 12345. It just won’t lead to any confusion that way.
What are placeholder names in your country? Let me know in the comments below!
Build vocabulary, practice pronunciation, and more with Transparent Language Online. Available anytime, anywhere, on any device.
Otto Normalverbraucher was last Friday’s “Wort der Woche” over at DW: