Among my friends and family, I am a Dick expert (please note: the capital D is of prime importance; I am NOT that kind of expert). Consequently, I have been asked a time or two which came first: the name or the slang? Wonder no more! With my trusty sidekick the Oxford English Dictionary, I am here to answer that question.
Short answer: the nickname came first. How did we go from Richard to Dick? The OED notes that Dick is a “playful alteration of Ric,” which is an obvious shortening of the name Richard. So, yeah. I guess once long ago in a land far away (well, probably England, so not that far away) some joker called his buddy “Dick” instead of “Rick” and it stuck. I can’t believe no one claimed credit for this fabulous invention.
We’re also a little unsure of exactly when Dick first rose in popularity as a nickname. By 1553, “Dick” was used in print as a generic term for men (think “every Tom, Dick, and Harry”), so it was clearly a well-known nickname even before William Shakespeare was born. It was probably used in medieval times, but manuscripts are not exactly forthcoming on nicknames. However, a similar nickname was in use, according to an anonymous note received by John Howard, duke of Norfolk, on the eve of the battle of Bosworth.
“Jack of Norfolk, be not too bold,
For Dickon, thy master, is bought and sold.”*
*Neil Grant, The Howards of Norfolk (London: Franklin Watts Ltd., 1972), 15.
A similar quote appears in Shakespeare’s Richard III. Obviously, “Dickon” is not the same as “Dick” but it’s pretty darn close, and provides evidence that “Dick” is a nickname even older than 550 years. For the life of me, though, I can’t imagine why “Dickon” has fallen out of fashion.
The slang: Dick has an abundance of slang meanings, but the granddaddy of them all is the dirty one. This seems to have made its print debut in 1891, which is well after the nickname was born. Again, no one has claimed credit for giving “dick” this new meaning, but I’m sure it would be a great story. For now, you’ll have to craft your own. My only suggestion is that “dick” is a “playful alteration” of “prick.” Both have the “ick” factor, and I know people were using the slang “prick” as far back as the middle ages. I’ve seen it in medieval literature.
After presenting this evidence to a friend, she said, “Why didn’t people stop using Dick as a nickname after it started to mean something else?” I’ve no idea, but it’s an excellent question. Maybe some people secretly enjoy having a name that doubles as a dirty word.
*This is my 100th post! It seems only natural it should be about Dicks in general. Here's hoping I make it to 100 more!