Wednesday 19 January 2011

The Oxford English Dick-tionary

The Oxford English Dictionary (henceforth called the OED) is definitely one of the greatest dictionaries in the world.  The online version even contains words we no longer use, as well as substantive entries for all the important swear words.  Therefore, I headed to this font of knowledge to see what sort of information I could rustle up for the word “dick.”  Believe it or not (actually, just believe it because it’s true), the OED provides seven different entries for the word “dick.”  And I am not dicking around (entry #7)!
            Entry number one pretty much contains the usual suspects, such as “pet-form of the common Christian name Richard.”  Since back in the day Richard was a pretty common name, Dick was lumped in with Tom and Harry as a catchphrase for any three or more random people.  And when it comes to describing people, Dick can also mean, when used ironically, a smart person (I wonder if hipsters are aware of this definition, loving irony as they do?).  According to entry number one, dick can also refer to a certain part of the male anatomy (who knew!) but this is considered coarse.
            And after that we get some more unusual definitions, which should definitely be brought back.  Dick can be slang for a riding whip (be prepared for stares if you tell your friends you hit your horse with your dick) or a leather apron.  This definition comes from the 1800s and tends to refer to aprons worn either by shoemakers or poor children (this was back before shoemakers were poor children), but nowadays the closest thing for most people is probably the pleather aprons worn in chemistry class.  Ahhh, I can only imagine the ensuing japery if students were to start asking their chemistry teachers for passes because “I left my dick in my locker.”
            In the southeast-East Anglia region of England (specific quotations provided by the OED concerning Kent, Norfolk, and Sussex), a dick could mean the bank of a ditch or a dyke.  This seems to be essential knowledge, as it is simply common courtesy to warn your drunken Kentish friends to “be careful not to trip and fall on that dick over there.”
            Skipping a few entries for the moment, we have numbers 6 and 7, which are nothing fascinating.  Number 6 helpfully informs readers that “dick” can be slang for detective, which is definitely common knowledge.  I even knew that one, and I only recently learned that pig was a derogatory term for cop!  According to the OED, though, the dick-detective was first printed in a 1908 book concerning criminal slang in Canada; perhaps America’s friendly neighbor to the north wasn’t always so law abiding.  Entry 7 explains how dick can be used in the phrase “to dick around,” which means “to waste time; to act unproductively or with no aim or serious intent; to mess about with a person or thing.” Clearly you all didn’t need “dicking around” explained, though, as it’s what you are doing this very moment on this blog.
            It’s entries 4 and 5 that really reveal the magic of the word dick.  I shall address number 5 first.  Dick is an essential part of the phrase “to take one's dick,” which means “to take one's declaration.”  The OED provides the lovely example of making your dying dick (which is undoubtedly better than having a dying dick), but declaration can also refer to stating the value of something.  This would be awesome at customs; I can’t wait to walk through a green corridor labeled “no dick.”
            The best definition, though, concerns “dick” as an abbreviation for dictionary.  Through synecdoche this mutates into meaning “fine words,” which seemingly entails using $10 words when $3 words will do.  The 1873 Slang Dictionary illustrates this usage best with the apt quote: “A man who uses fine words without much judgment is said to have ‘swallowed the dick.’”  And that, my friends, is a phrase that needs to become mainstream.
            My mother is a high-school English teacher, and I have endeavored, in vain, to get her to use this phrase.  It’s the perfect way to get that annoying kid, who misuses big words because he or she thinks it makes him/her sound smart, to shut the hell up.  I imagine, given the undercurrent of homophobia that pervades the lives of high-school males, that this will prove particularly effective with them.  So the next time Travis claims he’s perspicacious when he really means he has 20/20 vision (although, in Travis’s defense, that would have worked a couple hundred years ago), just turn and say, “Really, Travis, you need to stop swallowing so much dick.”  Bam! Problem solved, although this is probably because you’ll be fired.  On the bright side, you’ll never have to hear Travis swallow the dick again, and in the MasterCard commercial of your life, that would be considered “priceless.”
            Further reading would obviously be the OED.  If you’re not satisfied with that, you’re on your own.

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