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The History of Dick

April 22, 2012
Dick Cheney 2

Anybody can make fun of a guy whose first name is Dick; trying to discover the history of Dick is much more difficult. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Dick Clark’s friends paid tribute to him last week, they seemed to always say his last name.  That’s the problem with being named Dick; you’re never going to be the first-name-only icon like Madonna.  If your name is Dick and your friends leave out your last name while talking about you, somebody is going to snicker.

It’s tough to blame them.  Here are a few comments and what they would look like without the last name included:

“Everybody loves Dick Clark.”

“It was a pleasure working with Dick Clark.”

“I will always cherish the time I had with Dick Clark.”

Conversely, when Dick Cheney passes (if he passes, and I’m not sure he will in my lifetime because he probably has a stockpile of hearts to keep him going for a few more decades), his critics will sound like a bunch of man-hating extreme feminists.

I can hear the Dick Cheney comments already:

“I don’t like Dick Cheney, I never liked Dick Cheney, and I never will like Dick Cheney.  I despise Dick Cheney.”

Actually, I think you can already get quotes like that.


When did the word/name Dick become vulgar?

According to a couple dictionaries, “dick” became slang for the male appendage sometime in the early 1800’s, but nobody is sure exactly where, when, or how.  Dick was a very common name back then, so common that if a guy was going to name his appendage (maybe guys have always named their male parts, pure speculation on my part), it might as well be named Dick.  What else were they going to name it?

Other common names at the time were James, John, and Peter, but those were Biblical names, and guys probably didn’t want to give their peters Biblical names, so Dick might have been their best choice.

This kind of makes sense.  If a car thief can be Jack, and a guy who visits a prostitute is a John, then a male appendage can be a Dick.

Here is a bit of irony.  The name Dick was so common that it became associated with the male appendage, and because of that association with the male appendage, the name Dick is disappearing.  Yeah, it’s difficult to explain that kind of irony in one sentence.

The worst name ever might be Dick Butkus (pronounced Butt Kiss), a name so bad that Johnny Cash could have written a song about him.  The poor guy grew up to be one of the meanest, toughest linebackers in NFL history.  Some might call that irony, but I think it’s a simple cause-effect relationship.

Dick also used to mean a detective.  If MO can be the abbreviation for Missouri, then it makes sense that dick can be the abbreviated form of detective.  It’s probably easier to say “dick” than it is to say “det” or “deet” as abbreviated forms of “detective.”  So when a criminal called a detective a dick back in the old days, the dick wasn’t quite sure which meaning was being used (which explains the acceptance of police brutality in the old days).


The English language is constantly changing.  Words are created, words disappear, and word meanings are fluid.  Dick was once a very common name, but it might be gone in another generation, and it’s easy to see why.  It’s almost impossible to talk about the name Dick without making a bunch of Dick jokes (it doesn’t look as bad if you capitalize it).

The good news is the fewer young boys will be burdened with the name Dick.    The bad news is that the NFL may have fewer mean linebackers.



Here’s an excerpt from Nice Things, the new ebook from the creator of Dysfunctional Literacy..

I met my wife in a bookstore in 1995.  It was a Saturday night, I was in my late 20s, and I had no social life, so I was hanging out at the book store.  I noticed this cute dark-haired girl in the magazine section by the entrance.  We made brief eye contact, and I tried to smile because she had busted me checking her out, but she looked down, so I hightailed it out of the store.  I felt embarrassed.  I always hated getting caught checking out women.  It’s a natural thing for a guy to do, but I always felt creepy whenever I got caught.

Figuring the cute dark-haired girl would leave the book store soon, I hung out at a nearby music shop (this was back when people still bought CDs in stores).  I browsed through recent releases and found myself in the reggae/ska section, hoping that something new would be there.  Once when I looked up, I saw the dark-haired girl gazing straight at me, and then she turned and walked to the opposite side of the store to the R&B section before I could look away first.  If I had known ahead of time that she was looking at me, I would have been prepared to look away first.  That was the second time in a row she had looked away first.

Since I had already spotted her in the music shop, I decided it was safe to return to the book store.  Once there, I picked out the new Tom Clancy book and soon found myself standing in line next to the dark-haired girl, holding a Toni Morrison novel.  Since I knew what book she was buying, I glanced at how she looked in her jeans, and of course that’s when she noticed me.

I made sure to maintain eye contact.  “I promise I’m not stalking you,” I said.

“You don’t look like the type who listens to ska,” she said.

I was wearing a plain brown sweater and nondescript jeans.  “I used to dress like I listened to ska, back in college.”  Then I said, “You like ska?”

“No,” she said.  “I was just making an observation.”

“I would say that you looked like the type of person who reads Toni Morrison books,” I said.  “But I’m not sure what that would mean.”

The dark-haired girl hit me on the shoulder with the book.  I wasn’t sure what that meant either, but she smiled when she did it, and she didn’t lecture me, so I took it as a good sign.

“You know what goes good with a book?” she finally said, pointing in the direction of the parlor at the end of the plaza.  “Ice cream.”

“In this weather?” I said, then mentally kicked myself.  “I mean, I feel like ice cream too.  Maybe I’ll see you there.”

I wondered if she’d actually go to the ice cream parlor.  As I watched her pay for her book, I thought she’d just drive off while I was still at the register.  This was her chance to make her getaway.  I even took my time paying, just to give her a chance to leave without me having any chance of accidentally catching up with her.  I fumbled with my wallet, made lame small talk with the cashier, and counted out exact change slowly.  I’m sure I pissed off the people behind me.  The only thing I didn’t do was pull out a check book.

What happens next?  Find out in Nice Things .

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

Now available on the Amazon Kindle!

From → Etymology

  1. mollyspring permalink

    I love how language evolves. Very funny post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I love etymology. Thank you for this post. Plus I learned something. :)

  3. Tony permalink

    This shit was hilarious!!!!! Gotta love it!

  4. If Dick is short for Richard, it just seems like any guy currently named Richard would go by Rick or Ricky. What if Lucille Ball had called her son “Little Dicky” instead of Little Ricky? And it is odd how we also call it a Johnson or a Peter or a Tool. Poor Peter O’Toole. Poor Dick Van Dyke. Twice so.

  5. gurulous permalink

    Great post! Would you mind sharing the names of the dictionaries that you refer to that associated “dick” with “dick” in the early 1800s?

  6. Anonymous permalink

    My grandma always called my grandpa dick. I never understood why no one laughed when this happened, until I realized his real name was richard. He just went by dick. RIP Dick.

  7. I am being troubled by people at school and I can’t help it

    • Turq permalink

      go by a new nickname and insist everybody call you that. theyll resist at first but just ignore anyone who calls you dick and only answer to your new name. itll stick eventually. i grew up being made fun of for my name too.

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