Wednesday 30 January 2013


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!

Wednesday 23 January 2013

R.W. Southern

Sir Richard William Southern, who published as “R.W. Southern,” was a medieval historian born on 8 February (coming up!) 1912 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He died at home (I believe, Oxford) on 6 February 2001. Among medieval historians, Southern is one of the greats: a masterful scholar with a lively writing style who was a good, generous teacher. It is a winning, but often elusive, combination.

According to M.H. Keen’s biography of Southern in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, among “his family and friends and by his pupils he was always known as Dick.” Obviously, Southern belongs on this blog! Although I was never a friend or pupil of Southern’s (he retired before I was born), I’m going to take liberties and call him Dick. After all, this is a Dick blog (and you might have noticed, careful reader, that I often call people I like Richard or Dick and people I don’t by their last names. This is not 100% true for the cool guys, but I never call the jerks Richard).

Dick attended Balliol College, Oxford from 1929 to 1932 (naturally graduating with a first). After doing some work on a second bachelor’s (related to economics), Dick received a fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford and returned to the welcoming embrace of medieval history. In 1937, Dick became a fellow and tutor back at Balliol, where he taught until he enlisted for military service in the Second World War. It was while he was serving at the Foreign Office that he met his wife, Shelia, whom he married in 1944. The couple had two sons and were very happy together.

After the war, Dick went back to Balliol and kept lecturing and tutoring. Unfortunately, he came down with tuberculosis and had to leave the university in October 1949. Dick spent 1950 in a hospital and a sanatorium, recovering from the lung ailment. Without his busy teaching schedule, and with a lot of time on his hands, Dick wrote his most-famous book, The Making of the Middle Ages. It was published in 1953, quickly became a bestseller, and has been translated into twenty-seven languages. Generally speaking, the book discusses the intellectual, social, and economic developments that intertwined and thereby contributed to the flowering of civilization in the central middle ages. It’s a good book; you should read it.

Dick recovered from his tuberculosis and returned to Oxford. He continued to teach at Balliol until 1960 when he was promoted to the Chichele professorship of modern history at All Souls, Oxford. Despite the title (modern history), this was the top medieval post at Oxford. Explain that!

At All Souls, Dick kept being awesome, helping tons of postgraduate students and publishing work on St. Anselm. Although St Anselm and his Biographer (1963) was a labor of love (and twenty-five years of work), it’s not as famous as The Making of the Middle Ages. It’s still an awesome book; however, it’s a lot longer than The Making, which no doubt had an effect on its popularity.

From 1969 to 1981, Dick was president of St. John’s College, Oxford. During this time, he began to lose his hearing; after his retirement, he succumbed to complete deafness. Dick never let that stop him, though: he gave public lectures into his eighties and he welcomed friends and colleagues into his home. Sometimes people would just have to write down the important parts of the conversation for him to read, and he would easily join in the chatter.

During his retirement, Dick published another great book about another cool medieval person: Robert Grosseteste: the Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe (1986). In 1990, Dick published another book about St. Anselm, and he was working on a trilogy about medieval universities when he died. Volumes one and two made it to press (volume two in the year of his death), but it looks like volume three will never be forthcoming: Dick hadn’t progressed far enough in his work for what he left behind to be published.

Finally, Dick was knighted in 1974. That’s such an appropriate honor for a medievalist.


M. H. Keen, ‘Southern, Sir Richard William (1912–2001)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Jan 2005; online edn, Jan 2009 []

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Richard Burton Matheson

Richard was born in New Jersey on 20 February 1926. He was raised in Brooklyn, attended university in Missouri, and moved to California in 1951. He has been in the Golden State ever since.

Richard, of course, is a famous writer of science fiction. You might have heard of some of his work: I am Legend, Hell House, and What Dreams May Come. You’ve probably read some of his short stories: “Born of Man and Woman,” “Third from the Sun,” and “The Splendid Source,” among tons of other tales. (Seriously, the guy has written a whole lot!).

The titles might not be familiar, but I can remember reading “Born of Man and Woman” in middle school. It’s the one about the child kept locked in the basement, with a twist ending. It’s quite good. It plays on the emotions and it gets you thinking, which is a sign of good literature.

Richard also wrote episodes (and developed his stories into episodes) for The Twilight Zone. He authored the famous, classic episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (the one with William Shatner on the airplane). Other notable episodes Richard authored include: “The Invaders,” “Mute,” and "Little Girl Lost.”

Long-story short, Richard is quite the influential author. The prolific Stephen King, zombie-master George A. Romero, and vampire-lady Anne Rice have all cited Richard as a major influence, inspiring their work or sparking their interest in vampires or zombies.

And on a personal note, Richard has been married to Ruth Ann Woodson since 1952. The couple have four children, and three of them (Chris, Richard Christian, and Ali) are also writers of fiction and/or screenplays. Must be in their genes.


Friday 11 January 2013

Richard Nixon Redux

It's been a busy week, so I missed the boat. It turns out that 9 January was Richard Nixon's birthday - and he would have been 100. To belatedly honor that "special" day, here are some photos of America's trickiest, dickiest president.

College Football Nixon

Richard Nixon, Naval Lieutenant

Grumpy Nixon

Happy Nixon

Cha-ching Nixon

Nixon and his Finger

Sunday 6 January 2013

Images of Richard II

Today, January 6, is Richard II's birthday. Since I've already written an exceedingly-long post about him (in 2011), we'll go easy on our brains and just look at some pretty pictures.

The "Westminster Abbey" Portrait, so called because it now hangs in Westminster Abbey. This is also sometimes called the coronation portrait since Richard is showing in the full regalia.

The Wilton Diptych, which depicts a youthful Richard even though it was made when the king was an adult.

A 16th-century image. I prefer the other two, and I think they might be more accurate since this one was made some two hundred years after Richard's death.