English-speakers have a unique way of appropriating everyday words to describe sex. From sports to farm animals to botany, we have a vast trove of erotic symbolism at our disposal. One of the stranger of these conversions is that of Dick, which to this day remains a nickname for ‘Richard.’ Where other terms for genitalia make a certain metaphorical sense, Dick is, well, just a man’s name, evocative of little intrinsically phallic imagery.
Like so many profanities, this one appears to have been popularized via the military, as the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests:
The meaning “penis” is attested from 1891 in British army slang.
(It’s hardly peculiar that this bit of off-coloredness crossed the ocean and took root in America; fighting a pair of world wars together has a way of fostering the international exchange of vulgarity.)
I can’t say for sure how ‘Dick’ became ‘dick,’ but its trajectory doesn’t seem that hard to put together. The word has long been slang for ‘fellow‘ in British English, and given how people tend to anthropomorphize certain body parts, it’s not much of a leap to make.
What I find somewhat mysterious about the word, though, is that up until at least my parent’s generation, Dick was still perfectly acceptable as a truncation of Richard. (It still is acceptable, of course, although it strikes me as very rare for any American to go by Dick among those born after 1975 or so.) The word is perhaps unique in the English lexicon in that it is an unremarkable man’s name in one sense, and a crude epithet in another*. Hence it’s possible for a mother to scold her son by saying …
“Dick! Don’t ever say that word again!”
…when the ‘word’ in question is the poor boy’s own name.
In many ways, I think ‘dick’ has lost its punch. This can perhaps be attributed to the word further evolving to be a rather innocuous synonym of ‘jerk,’ as in the complaint “Stop acting like a dick!” I recall being (very slightly) shocked when the word was used this way in the late-90s TV drama Felicity, a show with a largely teenage audience. Such is the comparative mildness of the term when you divorce it from its sexual connotation.
Is this is yet another curse word enjoying a banal retirement?
*’Epithet’ is the operative word here. ‘Dick’ is used descriptively in a way that ‘Johnson’ or ‘Peter’ really aren’t.