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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.

From → Etymology

6 Comments
  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?

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