The Grammarphobia Blog

Dicking around

Q: We’re wondering when the word “dick” came to mean a stupid or obnoxious person, as in, “Don’t be such a dick.”

A: First things first. The term “dick” has been a euphemism for the penis since at least as far back as the 19th century.

Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang dates the “penis” sense of the word to the mid-19th century.

Two other sources, the Oxford English Dictionary and the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, give citations from 1891 and 1888, respectively.

But sexual slang, with its euphemistic character and its tendency to show up in speech long before it appears in print, is hard to pin down.

Though there’s no solid evidence that “dick” meant “penis” before the 19th century, one scholar has suggested that the usage might have been around much further back, in the 14th century.

Gordon Williams, in A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, cites the Chaucer scholar Haldeen Braddy on a possible verbal source of the usage.

Braddy suspected, according to Williams, 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.”

We don’t know why “dick” came to mean a penis, but the OED includes this “coarse” slang sense of the word within its entry for the nickname “Dick.”

The dictionary notes that the “familiar pet-form of the common Christian name Richard” has been used generically, much like “Jack,” to mean “fellow,” “lad,” “man,” and so on.

It’s no stretch to imagine a generic masculine name being used for the preeminent masculine body part!

But how long, you ask, has “dick” been used to mean a stupid or contemptible person? Only since the 1960s, according to Cassell’s and Random House. 

The earliest Random House citation is from Norman Bogner’s 1966 novel Seventh Avenue: “He’s a dick. I don’t know from respect, except for my parents.”

But why “dick” instead of, say “ralph” or “herbert”? We don’t know for sure, but we suspect that this sense comes from the sexual meaning of the word.

The usage follows several 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).

You may be wondering how “Dick” came to be a nickname for “Richard.” The fact is that nobody knows for sure.

But if you’d like to read more, we wrote a blog entry a while back on nicknames and another on the expression “Tom, Dick, and Harry.”

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