Why Richard became such a dick – history and evolution of the word Dick

How did “Powerful Leader” become “Dick”?

The Germanic first or given name Richard derives from German, French, and English “ric” (ruler, leader, king) and “hard” (strong, brave). So we have “Powerful Leader”.

It was borne by three kings of England including Richard I the Lionheart, one of the leaders of the Third Crusade in the 12th century.

How “Powerful Leader” became “Dick” is one of those weird prgressions, similar to how “soccer” came about.

To save aching hands (everything was written by hand) and parchment, Richard was shortened to ‘Ric’ or ‘Rich’. This gave rise to nicknames like ‘Richie’, ‘Rick’, and ‘Ricket’, among others.

People used rhyming names; thus, someone who was nicknamed Rich might be also lumbered with Hitch. Richard -> Ric -> Rick lead to nicknames like Dick and Hick around the early 13th century.

An English poll tax return of 1370 shows the astounding popularity of the name Richard.

Out of 715 male forenames , the top ones are broken down into :

      John 236 (33%)
      William 137 (19%)
      Thomas 85
      Richard 67
      Robert 64

Around the 16th century, Dick started to be synonymous with ‘man’, ‘lad’, or ‘fellow’, sort of a general name for any ‘Tom, Dick, or Francis”.

The English theologian John Owen first recorded the expression in 1657.

Owen told a governing body at Oxford University that “our critical situation and our common interests were discussed out of journals and newspapers by every Tom, Dick and Harry.”

Or to quote Shakespeare :

“I am sworn brother to a leash of Drawers, and can call them by their names, as Tom, Dicke, and Francis.”

evolution of the word Dick : Other things called Dick

Dick once popularly meant an assertion, announcement, or declaration, such as “I do dick Mr. Beauregard… you are my hero!” Similarly, someone’s ‘dying dick’ meant something completely different in the Middle Ages – namely their ‘dying declaration’.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites someone writing in 1878 “I’d take my dying dick” to mean “I’d swear a dying declaration.”

An 1869 slang dictionary offered definitions of “dick” including “a riding whip” and an abbreviation of dictionary, also noting that in the North Country, it was used as a verb to indicate that a policeman was eyeing the subject!

Things that were commonly called ‘dick’ through the middle ages up to now include: aprons, dictionaries, detectives, whips, and a unit measure of ten sheep(vital to Cumbrian sheep counting).

The Oxford English Dictionary cites a dick as meaning a type of hard cheese in 1847, which explains the mysteriously named “spotted dick“pudding.

In 1891, when volume 2 of J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues was published, dick had many slang meanings :

DICK, subs. (common). — 1. A dictionary ; a RICHARD (q.v.) [the entry for Richard simply notes that it means “a dictionary”] ; also by implication, fine language or long words.—See SWALLOW THE DICK. [Citation from 1860 omitted.] 2. (coachman’s). — A riding whip. 3. (military). — The penis. For synonyms, see CREAMSTICK. 4. (common). — An adffidavit. [Citations from 1861 omitted.] 5. (American). — An Irish Catholic.—See CRAWTHUMPER.

Verb (thieves’). — To look ; to PIPE (q.v.) ; e.g., the bulky’s DICKING = the policeman is watching you. {From the gypsy dikk.} Fr., gaffer. For synonyms, see PIPE.

DICK IN THE GREEN, phr. (thieves’) — Weak ; inferior. …

IN THE REIGN OF QUEEN DICK, adv. phr. (common). — Never ; ‘when two Sundays come in a week.’ For synonyms, see GREEK CALENDS. [Citation omitted.]

TO SWALLOW THE DICK verb phr. (common). — To use long words without knowledge of their meaning ; TO HIGH FALUTE (American).

UP TO DICK, adv. phr. (common). — Not be ‘taken in’ ; ‘artful’ ; ‘fly’ ; wide-awake. For synonyms, see DOWNY. …

evolution of the word Dick : When did Dick become associated with dick?

Haldeen Braddy, the Chaucer scholar, suspected that the sexual use of “dick” may have originated in an old verb, dighte, which Chaucer used in The Canterbury Tales “in reference to copulation.”

In “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” the narrator says she goes out at night to

“espye wenches that he dighte.”

Later, she mentions wives who let their lovers

“dighte hire [them] al the nyght.”

evolution of the word Dick : Private Dick on the case


The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang traces the noun “dick” in the “detective” sense to the 19th century (around 1864) criminal underworld.

At the time, the slang verb “to dick” meant “to watch.” This “dick” came in turn from the Romany (the language of the Gypsies) word “dik,” meaning “to look, to see.”

The Gypsies, originally from northern India, played a prominent role in the British underworld in the 18th and 19th centuries, and several Romany words (including “posh”!) percolated into general English usage.

“Dick” meaning “to watch” could easily be transformed into a noun that means “one who watches, a police detective, etc.” It’s even possible that the popularity of Dick Donovan tales at the time contributed to the spread of the term “dick”.

evolution of the word Dick : Dicking around since the 1960s

The earliest Random House citation of “dick” as a stupid or comptemptible person is from Norman Bogner’s 1966 novel Seventh Avenue:

“He’s a dick. I don’t know from respect, except for my parents.”

The usage follows on from negative verbal senses of “dick” that showed up in the mid-20th century, such as “dick around” (1948, waste time), “dick off” (1948, shirk one’s duties), and “dick up” (1951, spoil).

Perhaps the greatest irony is that the name Dick was so common that it became associated with the male appendage, and because of that association, the name Dick is disappearing.

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