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The word dick is generally considered offensive and is marked so in dictionaries. But there is also a meaning of detective that it carries. I usually find no derog indication for this meaning.

Is it offensive to call a detective friend of mine a dick?

EDIT (thanks to Kristina): I want to know if the usage of this word to refer to detectives is offensive in practice, though the dictionaries may opine otherwise. The question is general and not about how I could call my friend :)

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Thanks Kristina. I have two huge dictionaries at my home and I just checked into them. Please tell me what more research is expected of me, I'll gladly modify the question. –  Richard Mar 18 '13 at 17:42
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Pity poor Dick Tracy, the butt of many a foul joke. –  tchrist Mar 18 '13 at 17:51
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Stop calling me Tracy. –  Edwin Ashworth Mar 18 '13 at 19:54
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I can't help but laugh. Your name is @Richard. You're a Dick! –  zzzzBov Mar 18 '13 at 22:05
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Is it offensive to call a police officer a cop, as in "Cheese it! The cops!"? It's always a matter of context &, when speaking, tone of voice. –  user21497 Mar 19 '13 at 0:59
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2 Answers 2

While current usage may mark dick as offensive ("a man who you think is unpleasant and stupid" per Macmillan), the same entry in Macmillan succinctly summarizes dick in the sense of "private detective" as "informal, old-fashioned."

In other words, you can use "dick" in this sense if you want to sound like a character from a Mickey Spillane novel, or a film noir movie.

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If you are wondering whether or not your detective friend will confuse the derogatory form of dick with the slang term for detective, well, that depends on how much currency he holds in the parlance of English slang. As to dick being a pejorative for detective, that claim is dubious. Word Detective, citing the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, has this to say about the word's origin (italics are mine):

The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang suggests an entirely different origin (different from the notion that "dick" is a shortened form of "detective) for "dick," one that I find very plausible. They trace the noun "dick" in the "detective" sense to the 19th century (around 1864) criminal underworld slang verb "to dick," meaning "to watch." This "dick" came in turn from the Romany (the language of the Gypsies) word "dik," meaning "to look, to see." This is significant because 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 during that period. One can easily imagine "dick" meaning "to watch" being transformed into a noun that means "one who watches, a police detective, etc." It is even possible that the popularity of Dick Donovan tales at the time contributed to the spread of the term "dick" among the law-abiding (and mystery-reading) public.

I would also add that, after reading a half dozen Raymond Chandler novels, I don't recall any implied meaning of "dick" that suggests its relationship to the derogatory usage we hear today. The most pejorative implied sense of the word I've taken away from detective fiction comes from the slighting way police officers use the term to refer to dime-a-dozen private eyes. In that way, the word "shamus" is also used equally pejoratively.

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+1 for the history lesson! Fascinating! –  Kristina Lopez Mar 18 '13 at 21:36
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protected by tchrist Jul 2 at 2:41

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