The Grammarphobia Blog

Was a dick a dummy in Jane Austen’s day?

Q: You say in your posting about the word “dick” that it wasn’t used to mean a stupid or obnoxious person until the 20th century. I believe Jane Austen uses the word in just that way in Persuasion when she describes Richard Musgrove in Chapter 6.

A: Oh, my gosh! Both of us recently re-read Persuasion, but we didn’t make the connection when we researched the history of the pejorative “dick.”

We even recall being a bit startled by Austen’s scathingly witty characterization of “poor Richard,” the black sheep of the Musgrove family.

In writing about his death at sea, Austen says “the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son, and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.”

The passage that caught your attention is in the next paragraph. We’ll repeat it for other readers of the blog:

 “He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him ‘poor Richard,’ been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.”

In writing here about the ne’er-do-well Dick Musgrove, was Austen slyly referring to the pejorative “dick”? That’s certainly one way to interpret the passage. We’re not sure, though.

Perhaps now that early newspapers, broadsheets, and pamphlets are being digitized, researchers will come up with more definitive uses of the pejorative “dick.” Something to look forward to!

Austen, who finished writing Persuasion in 1816, died the next year at the age of 41. What a loss!

Both of us have read and reread her novels many times. And with each reading, we discover things we hadn’t noticed before. (Now you’ve brought another one to our attention.)

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