Dear Straight Dope:
Which Dick came first?
OK, so if this isn't too crude of an opener, I will explain myself. My question is a simple one, but one that has troubled me for many years. I am puzzled as to which of these events occurred:
1. Someone (somebody had to be first didn't they?) named Richard thought it was a grand idea to go by a nickname which was also slang for the male genitalia "penis."
2. Penis slang was personified for someone nicknamed Dick who perhaps resembled in appearance or actions the male genitalia.
3. Some "coincidence" which cannot be explained. Adding to the uniqueness of this nickname is that Dick only shares two letters with Richard. Can you imagine for example "Pussy" being an acceptable nickname for Priscilla. Or "Tits" for Theresa. Perhaps "Ass" for Osama is on the way into the language and we don't even know it yet.
Justin aka "Kneecap"
SDStaff Dex replies:
Sure, or perhaps “to Cecil” will come to mean “to be wise beyond one’s years.”
Obviously the name came first. The name Richard is very old, although its origin is disputed. Old English had Richeard, from Ric (ruler) and heard (hard); French had Richart, and Old German had Ricohard. The name Richer was also fairly common until the 13th Century or thereabouts.
In those days, manuscripts, letters, grocery lists, and everything else was written by hand; it was therefore common and easier to use agreed-upon abbreviations. “Rich.” was used for “Richer” and “Ric.” for “Richard” or “Ricard.”
Richard and Ricard were equally popular in the Middle Ages, and the abbreviations led naturally to diminutives — such as Rich, Richie, Rick, and Ricket. Rhyming nicknames were also fairly common in the 12th and 13th centuries, and so we also have Hitch from Rich, Hick and Dick from Rick, and Hicket from Ricket. Some of these later became surnames or parts of surnames. We note that while Dick endures as a nickname, “Hick” has thankfully become obsolete, except when tied to “Dick” in rhymes such as “Hickory, Dickory, Dock.”
In the 13th and 14th centuries, “Hick” evolved, however improbably, into “Hudde,” from which derives surnames such as “Hudson.” W. Bardsley’s masterful work, Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames (1901) cites a Latin manuscript that mentions “Ricardus dictus Hudde de Walkden.”
Back at the ranch, Dick and Hick were among the earliest of the rhyming nicknames, first appearing in writing around 1220. Other rhyming nicknames include Polly from Molly, Bob from Rob (from Robert), Bill from Will (from William); and Hodge from Roger.
The name Dick (like the name Jack) was used colloquially to mean a man or everyman. The expression “every Tom, Dick, or Harry” attests to this as a long-established usage; Shakespeare uses “every Tom, Dick, or Francis” in Henry IV Part I.
From the usage of Dick to mean average person, other usages appeared. Many other usages. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a dick as meaning a type of hard cheese in 1847, which lead to the usage of “spotted dick” (to be dealt with in an upcoming Staff Report.) The term “dick” was also used to mean a riding whip, an apron, the mound around a ditch, and an abbreviation for “dictionary” around 1860.
Dick also meant a declaration, in which sense the OED cites someone writing in 1878 “I’d take my dying dick” to mean “I’d swear a dying declaration.” The term “dick” came to mean policeman around 1908, and then detective.
And we finally get to where you started. The use of “dick” as coarse slang for penis first arises around 1890. Tracking the history of uncouth words is not easy, since such expressions were not generally written down. How “dick” came to be associated with penis is not known, although the riding whip may have pointed the way.
So there you have it.
SDStaff Dex, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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