Q From Steve Campbell: Who do you think I am — Joe Soap? My dear old mother used to use this eUpression occasionally. We migrated to Australia from the Old Dart in 1951. I’ve never heard it used by Australians. What is its origin and is it still in use in the UK?
A It remains moderately common. This example is from the Mirror of 4 October 2006: “You believe in the tooth fairy if you believe that businessmen happen along to a posh hotel in Manchester to hear any old Joe Soap lecture on the Irish economy.” In 1994 Andrew Motion published a long poem with the title Joe Soap.
But the meaning has shifted since your mother learned it. She was clearly using the expression to refer to a stupid or naive person, one who could be easily put upon or deceived. That was the original slang sense; these days it usually refers to an ordinary person.
A very early appearance of the term, in the
caption to an illustration by David Langdon
in Cyril Jackson's 1943 book It’s a Piece of
Cake—RAF Slang Made Easy.
The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1943 book of services slang by John Hunt and Alan Pringle: “Joe Soap, the ‘dumb’ or not so intelligent members of the forces. The men who are ‘over-willing’ and therefore the usual ‘stooges’.” A services origin is supported by an item in the Lethbridge Herald in Canada the same year: “Farther along the road to Enna I saw many captured German vehicles. German divisional and regimental signs had been painted out and flaring red Canadian maple leaves painted on sides and fenders. On one captured truck was painted in huge letters ‘Smith’s Transport.’ Another had the sign ‘Joe Soap and Company.’”
The usual view is that the second part is rhyming slang for dope, a stupid person, which started life as local English dialect (it’s first recorded in Cumberland in 1851). The first part is the short form of Joseph, widely used in compounds to refer to an ordinary person — Joe Bloggs, Joe Blow, Joe Sixpack, Joe Average, Joe Citizen, plain Joe, ordinary Joe, Joe Doakes, Joe Public — there are lots of examples. It was first noted as a generic term in 1846, in a different sense, when it appeared in The Swell’s Night Guide: “Joe, an imaginary person, nobody, as Who do those things belong to? Joe.”