Poor Dick’s Profane Conversion

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.

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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18 Responses to Poor Dick’s Profane Conversion

  1. Charles Sullivan says:

    It seems that the curse words or swear words are mostly sexual or scatological these days, but it was not long ago when blasphemous words were the bad words. This explains some of the substitute words that are still with us (barely) to avoid blasphemy: “dag nabbit” or “dang” or “dog gummit” or “darn” are all safer versions of “God damn it.”

  2. Eugene says:

    For a while Peter had the same problem, so I’ll bet the frequency of Pete as a nickname has increased while Dick has lost ground to Rick. And then there’s Johnson, but we can’t change our last names as easily.
    The only similar thing I can think of on the female side of it is Fannie as a nickname for Frances. Quite likely you’d go with Fran these days.

  3. IVV says:

    You might be amused by this blog post by Johnson.

  4. trawicks says:

    I can’t tell if the preceding two comments are related in terms of “Johnson,” but it made me chuckle regardless. I’m acquainted with the phallic senses of Johnson and Peter, but I’ve really never heard either in spoken discourse. Both strike me as past their prime, along with ‘pecker.’ In my opinion, ‘cock’ has won out over most of these words, at least in American English. Which is kind of remarkable, since it’s easily the oldest of the bunch (it dates back to Shakespeare).

    • Tom says:

      Yes, “cock” still has the power, it seems. In 1999, a major movie called “Dick” caused no fuss over its name, but a new off-Broadway play called “Cock” can’t even be mentioned by name in newspapers including the New York Times, which goes no further than the euphemism used in the play’s URL: http://www.cockfightplay.com/.

      • Ellen K. says:

        But the movie title Dick is related to the name Dick. Not a reference to any part of anyone’s anatomy. Whereas the play name Cock does not, despite the graphic on the website, have any obvious reference to chickens.

        • Ellen K. says:

          I guess both play with double meaning in the title word, but a significant difference is that the actual reference of the title of one is sexual, and the other isn’t. (Or, so it appears from info about each without having seen them.)

  5. Eric says:

    A word I hear a lot which strikes me as profane but clearly doesn’t offend it’s users is douche and douchebag and douchiness, etc. I suppose it’s more about “grossness” than an unhealthy apparatus for cleaning up after intercourse, but no one seems to bat an eye. I heart on G rated podcasts a lot, with people who are clearly trying hard not to say other more traditional curse words. It has an overtone of misogyny to me… It’s not a name, so not really part of this post’s topic, but it always draws my attention when people use it…

    • trawicks says:

      For me, ‘douche’ doesn’t sound all that offensive, but then again, I learned ‘douche’ in the context of ‘douchebag’ before I learned what the word originally referred to. I agree, it’s origins seem vaguely misogynistic.

  6. zpc says:

    “other terms for genitalia make a certain metaphorical sense, Dick is, well, just a man’s name”

    …but not unique in that – there’s ‘Willie’ and ‘John Thomas’ – and for a man’s name used for something closely related to the male genitalia, there’s always ‘Johnny.’

  7. Paul Ó Duḃṫaiġ says:

    Mick/Mickey can also be used here in Ireland though only in certain contextes. For example:
    “Stop taking the mick!” (stop taking the piss!)
    “Zip up your mickey!”

    In general though it’s fairly humorous as oppose to profane term.

  8. adam cohen says:

    RE: Dick,

    Its comic/scatological overtones for younger people have reached the point that when WARNER’S was contemplating a Robin/Dick Grayson tv show in the style of SMALLVILLE, they were going to have the character go by the nickname “DJ.”

  9. adam cohen says:

    “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.”

    Same thing happened with “suck” (You suck, this sucks, etc).In my youth, this phrase was definitely quasi-taboo in polite circles. Even though I was unaware of its origins (C…sucker) as a boy, I knew that it had certain connotations.Now, though, it seems to have lost all of its taboo qualities.

    • Tom says:

      Yeah, that taboo has definitely lost its power. In a “Brady Bunch” episode in the early ’70s, Mom Brady tells one of the boys she doesn’t like the word “stinks”. Within twenty years, Bart Simpson was throwing “sucks” around almost every week, and “stinks” became almost embarrassingly quaint. And anyone who’s seen the more recent “Deadwood” series knows how far the writers had to go to make those 19th-century characters’ speech seem truly earthy and threatening to modern ears.

  10. Rikibeth says:

    I’ve seen some conjectures that “dick” for “penis” is a good bit older than the 1890s and has a culinary derivation — as in the pudding “spotted dick.” “Dick” and “duff” are both related to “dough,” which was the main component of boiled puddings — and puddings, like sausages, were originally boiled in animal-gut casings (until the pudding-cloth came about) and thus had a suggestive shape. There are still sausages called “white pudding” and “black pudding.” The French “boudin” for “sausage” makes the sausage-pudding connection even clearer. The slang terms “up the duff” and “in the pudding club” for pregnancy are likewise related.

    I wonder if the falling-off of “Dick” as a diminutive for “Richard” didn’t have as much to do with Nixon as with any scatological connotations? I have an uncle Richard, who was always called Dickie, except that starting around 1975 he strongly encouraged people to use a diminutive of his Hebrew name Rafael instead.

  11. Siddhartha Dick says:

    Curious as i have not seen it brought up yet. The family or surname of Dick has some very old roots from Scotland. I was always lead to believe that the name or word Dick did not become entwined with anything phallic until more modern history.

  12. Captain Obvious says:

    I find it odd that the OP and all replies left out the fact, coincidental or (I think) not that ‘Dick’ is Deutch for ‘thick’ ….might be something to that…together with the whole Brittish ‘Dick’ means ‘fellow’ thing.