I'm preparing for an upcoming presentation for a class on Richard Nixon and Watergate. Nixon was given the name "Tricky Dick." The name "Dick" as a nickname for someone named Richard was very common. I happened to mention this to a younger teacher in my office and they thought I was joking.

The word "dick" nowadays refers to male genitalia in a negative way. The use of the word "dick" in "Private dick" (a detective) does not seem related...at least I couldn't see any connection.

When and why did the word "dick" change from a common nickname to an almost exclusive reference to male genitalia?

Please note, I am not interested in the etymology of the word. I want to know why the word has almost completely shifted meaning. Was there a popular event or phrase that shifted the meaning? The only other word that comes to mind in this way is "gay," which the dictionary still defines as "happy" and used to be used a lot but is now almost completely relegated to the meaning "homosexual." A quick search under "Nixon campaign button" on Google provides many results which currently would be unacceptable for use but at the time were quite OK. Here is a link. Here is another.

  • 3
    Possible duplicate: english.stackexchange.com/q/24308/184766 Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 16:39
  • 2
    @BladorthinTheGrey doesn't really address this. Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 16:47
  • 4
    "Almost exclusive" — do you have any evidence of that? I do know men who go by Dick, and while it is true that most of them are of the older generation, the same is true of Jim and Bob (younger men seem to prefer James and Rob), so it may be that these nicknames in general are in decline. On the other hand, Billy and Andy are holding strong in my circles against Will and Drew. The popularity of names goes in cycles, and nicknames presumably follow epicycles. Aa to the reference to male genitalia, it is vulgar, but not necessarily negative.
    – choster
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 18:13
  • 3
    As to when did "Dick" stop being a nickname, I don't believe that it has. Perhaps the name "Richard" is not used as much as it used to be, but "Ricky" is the only alternative nickname I can think of, and that's exceedingly rare -- I've known about a dozen guys named "Dick" in my lifetime but only two nicknamed "Ricky".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 23:21
  • 3
    They could also go by Rick or Rich
    – Jim
    Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 4:45

3 Answers 3


According to Grammopgobia the usage of the sexual connotation of "dick" Maverick have spread during the '50s and '60s as a consequence of verbal usage usages common at that time such as "dick around" and "dick off". And as suggested by Wikipedia this usage spread later in comedies and with the Internet - Actor and internet personality Wil Wheaton has written on the subject of Wheaton's Law, which states "don't be a dick". The phrase was in use before Wheaton's blog post, in the 1988 movie Heathers for example.

  • 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).


The following extract tries to trace the evolution of the different and apparently contrasting meanings of "dick" through its distant origin in the Middle Ages. It must be noted that many assumptions remain unconfirmed:

Early usages of dick:

  • The great arc of dicks in the English language, it would seem, begins with the Norman conquest of England in 1066 and the conquerors’ introduction of the strong, Germanic name “Richard” into our lexicon.
  • As the name became popular over the next two centuries, it was often shortened in writing to “Ric,” easing the work of the scribes and saving space on valuable parchment. From that abbreviation, many apparently adopted the nickname “Rick” as a standard diminutive of “Richard.” But the English of the era were fond of rhyming nicknames (a tradition preserved in modern singsong Cockney slang), and so they transformed “Rick” into the pet name “Dick.” It sounds like a stretch, but it’s the same linguistic evolution that takes us along these common lines:

Robert → Rob → Bob

William → Will → Bill

  • By the 16th century, Richard and the nickname Dick had become so common that it became a generic term for an average man, much as we might say John Smith today.

  • By the end of the century, Shakespeare used the names “Tom, Dick and Francis” as common epithets in his Henry IV. And as comedy and literature came to associate this generalized everyman with a bumbling fool trampling through like, like our Joe Schmoe, the name took on a derogatory term that evolved to mean a fool or, eventually, a jerk.

  • You’d never guess it, but this use of “dick” as your average, nondescript bloke is where we get Moby Dick for a whale. Herman Melville based his white wale on a real-life deep seas tormentor named Mocha Dick, described in a New York magazine in 1839, shifting the first name slightly for unknown reasons. But the whale’s surname, he explains obliquely in chapter forty-five of his opus, comes from a common whale naming pattern, attaching the location the whale was first sited to a generic men’s name—like New Zealand Tom or Timor Jack, Mocha Dick was thus some Joe Schmoe whale sighted off the coast of the Indian Ocean island of Mocha.

Male sexual connotation of "dick":

  • No one’s quite sure how the word dick made its subsequent jump from the hapless everyman to genitalia, but we are fairly sure that it first appeared as British military slang in the late 19th century. And given that British soldiers of the time also coined the terms “peter” and “willy” for their members, dick likely took on its most vulgar meaning simply and unremarkably because it was another good, common men’s name that could be used euphemistically to refer to one’s own second brain and little soldier, helmeted and ready for war.

Dick as detective:

  • According to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, in the late 19th century the British criminal underworld was dominated by the Roma (often derogatorily known as Gypsies), in whose unique language the verb “dik” means to see, watch, or spy on someone.

  • This association with crime and spying may have bastardized the term upon assimilation into the English language (along with other Roma words, like “posh”) to mean both a private detective and a verb of abuse. (And as for dick as a declaration or the act of declaring—and for dictionary—well, these may just be old, early English shortenings that’ve fallen out of usage.)

  • A few terms lie outside this great dick circle. We have almost no idea how aprons or whips came to be called dicks, for instance. These terms may trace back to some early adaptations of terms from other languages. But the great outlier is “spotted dick” pudding. No one’s 100 percent sure of the dish’s name’s origins, but our best guess is either an abbreviation of an old term for pudding, puddink/puddick, or a reference to an old variety of cheese used in baking the dish when it first appeared in the 19th century.

Final remarks:

  • Either way, this and other obscure meanings of “dick” are comparatively few and far between exceptions to the great unity of “dicks.” For all its diversity of meaning, somehow there is continuity and commonality behind the term’s most common usages. And that is the beauty of language, ladies and dicks.

(Modernotion.com, 'Why Does the Word "Dick" Have So Many Meanings?" by Mark Hay)

  • 1
    It seems the word has now almost completely lost its use as a name. If I introduced myself by saying "Hi, I'm Dick." in the 70s no one would giggle, but today I don't think that's the case. Was there a turning point? What happened to change the meaning? If I say my name is Peter, no one would think twice. Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 18:04
  • 2
    Yeah, probably to call you son Dick is not a good idea:) - "My father-in-law is called Dick but it's not short "Richard" but for "Dickie" which is his given name. His mother was crazy and hated him for not being born a girl, so as punishment she named him Dickie Lynn. Even worse, when he was young his step-dad was also named Dick so my FIL was called "Little Dick" to differentiate from his step-dad, "Big Dick". He says he had it "worse than a boy named Sue" and hasn't spoken to his mother in 15 years, though the name stuff was the tip of the iceberg." - reddit.com
    – user66974
    Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 18:12
  • 1
    When I was a kid, my father was called "Dick" and I was called "Dickie". Need I say more? I appreciate this illuminating answer. Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 18:14
  • 1
    I knew as I scrolled and scrolled before reaching the bottom of this answer finally, it had to be one of yours Josh61. I learned lots of new stuff today thanks to your answer. (Can I go home now?) :-) Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 18:59
  • @michael_timofeev Similar to Willy. If someone introduced themselves as Dick or Willy, you'd accept it readily, but the other meaning would definitely cross your mind. It seems the balance has tipped between which sense is primary and which is secondary for these two names (and Johnson, for that matter), though not for John and probably a host of other potentially genital names. Commented Aug 25, 2016 at 23:09

In 1891, when volume 2 of J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues was published, dick had many slang meanings, including (but by no means limited to or even fundamentally associated with) the genital meaning:

DICK, subs. (common). — 1. A dictionary ; a RICHARD (q.v.) [the entry for Richard simply notes that it means "a dictionary"] ; also by implication, fine language or long words.—See SWALLOW THE DICK. [Citation from 1860 omitted.] 2. (coachman's). — A riding whip. 3. (military). — The penis. For synonyms, see CREAMSTICK. 4. (common). — An adffidavit. [Citations from 1861 omitted.] 5. (American). — An Irish Catholic.—See CRAWTHUMPER.

Verb (thieves'). — To look ; to PIPE (q.v.) ; e.g., the bulky's DICKING = the policeman is watching you. {From the gypsy dikk.} Fr., gaffer. For synonyms, see PIPE.

DICK IN THE GREEN, phr. (thieves') — Weak ; inferior. ...

IN THE REIGN OF QUEEN DICK, adv. phr. (common). — Never ; 'when two Sundays come in a week.' For synonyms, see GREEK CALENDS. [Citation omitted.]

TO SWALLOW THE DICK verb phr. (common). — To use long words without knowledge of their meaning ; TO HIGH FALUTE (American).

UP TO DICK, adv. phr. (common). — Not be 'taken in' ; 'artful' ; 'fly' ; wide-awake. For synonyms, see DOWNY. ...

It is evident from this coverage that dick in the sense of "penis" was in relatively narrow usage (primarily in the military) in 1891, whereas other meanings—alone or in phrases—were far more generally known and used. Indeed, many most of the alternatives meanings could not very well coexist with the genital meaning. It may be have been insulting in 1891 to say that someone had "swallowed the dick[tionary]"—but today the phrase would be untenable.

It's interesting to note the verb sense of dick as "looking or watching" (supposedly from a Romany word), since this would seem to provide a pathway to the noun dick meaning "guard or watchman," as in the W.C. Fields movie The Bank Dick.

Stepping back two decades earlier, the genitalia meaning is nowhere to be found. John Hotten, The Slang Dictionary: Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal (1874) offers only these definitions:

Dick, a riding whip ; gold-headed DICK, one so ornamented.

Dick, abbreviation of "Dictionary," but often euphemistically rendered "Richard,"—fine language, long words. A man who uses fine words without much judgment is said to have "swallowed the DICK."

The earliest citation for dick in the sense of "penis" in J.E. Lighter, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997) is from a book titled Stag Party, published circa 1888, according to Lighter. The cited example there unmistakably uses dick in its genital sense.

  • Please see the note I added to my question Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 1:07
  • @michael_timofeev: To avoid drawing answers that focus on the etymology of the word, you might want to remove the etymology tag from your question in favor of meaning and perhaps historical-change. But questions about historical change overlap considerably with questions about origins of new meanings, in any case—and since EL&U doesn't have a tag for word-origins (other than origin-unknown), many people end up using the tag etymology for that purpose anyway.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 3:19
  • I understand having tags however a close reading of my question shows that I'm interested in the change of meaning, not the origin, and specifically recently, hence the starting point of Nixon. I tried to be as concise as possible with my original question before the note so it doesn't ramble on but it seems that was too vague. Thank you for the contribution. Perhaps now you are able to shed some light on this subject knowing my intentions. Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 4:08

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.