Peeping Toms, bloody Marys...and disappearing Dicks

Aug 18th 2006

Last time I talked about slang associations and how much they do or don't affect our perception of names. The #1 example today is Dick, which has become an everyday term for penis. ( some circles, I hear.) As it happens, Dick is no longer an everyday nickname for Richard. The name, once common enough to represent an everyman ("Tom, Dick and Harry"), is virtually extinct in today's younger generations.

But did slang really kill it? The use of dick to mean penis dates to the late 19th century but didn't become widely common until the 1960s. The name Dick, meanwhile, was a stalwart of the 1930s and started plummeting in the late '40s when its strongest slang meaning was still "detective." The timeline doesn't fit.

It looks like Dick was a victim of fashion more than jargon. Compare it to other nicknames like Bill, Bob and Jim as seen in this earlier blog entry. The name died a mostly natural death...with an unintentional assist from television.

As of 1939, Dick was the clear standard nickname for Richard while Rick and Ricky were essentially unheard of. Just five years later Ricks and Rickys together narrowly outnumbered Dicks, and soon it was no contest, Rick/Ricky was a phenomenon.

For reference: one Eric "Ricky" Nelson was born in 1940, the second son of bandleader Ozzie Nelson and singer Harriet Hilliard. He became a household name at the age of 4 when his parents launched a popular radio sitcom based loosely on their family life. The kids were played by actors until 1949, when the real Nelson boys were allowed to assume the roles of themselves. Rakish young Ricky was an instant success. In October 1952, the family took the sitcom to tv where it became a long-running hit, with Ricky growing up into a popular teen star. His fame took off even more in 1957 when he recorded his first rock song -- and drove it up the charts by performing it on tv. Ricky became a huge pop star with 30 top-40 hits from 1957-62, second only to Elvis.

Meanwhile, another little Ricky was living another faux-reality life on tv. "I Love Lucy" premiered in 1951, starring married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Arnaz played Ricky Ricardo and their tv son was Ricky Jr., called Little Ricky. Little Ricky was "born" to great hoopla on January 19, 1953, the same day as Lucy and Desi's real-life son Desi Jr.

Got all that? Here's the the same information condensed into name form. The orange is Ricky, the green, for a sense of proportion, is Dick.

This celebrity-fueled explosion of little Rickys accentuated Dick's dated style and hastened its decline. That left a clear landscape for the slang meaning to completely take over the name. Today, the negative connotation is probably strong enough to prevent a Dick revival. But it didn't kill the name on its own; fashion had to get there first.


By B (not verified)
August 18, 2006 2:58 PM

But what does it mean that none of those Ricks was actually a Richard? How did Rick/Ricky become a nickname for Richard, or displace Dick? If those Ricks were short for Eric and Ricardo, I mean.

By Elizabeth T. (not verified)
August 18, 2006 3:00 PM

I love the return of the graphs, Laura!

A related question: did Rick/Ricky become popular at the same time that people started giving their children nicknames as given names? Or has that always been a staple of American naming patterns?

By Christine (not verified)
August 18, 2006 6:46 PM

As far as I know, nns as given names not a new trend. They were huge around the turn of the century. In 1880, Minnie was #5, Annie was #11, Nellie was #18, and Carrie was #20.

Nor is it an American trend. I think it's far bigger in England, actually.

By Christine (not verified)
August 18, 2006 6:50 PM

Yep, I just checked. England's top 20 includes Sophie, Ellie, Lucy, Katie, Lily, Mia, and Mille.

The only nn in our top 20 is Mia.

By Christiana (not verified)
August 18, 2006 7:00 PM

I'm wondering if Laura's data wasn't nicknames as given names - if you look at the Ricky/Dick chart, it looks different from the Voyager chart in color and all. Don't know where she got the info, but I don't think it's Voyager.

By Julia (not verified)
August 19, 2006 2:16 AM

Great discussion on nicknames. BTW What is Mia short for?

By Valerie (not verified)
August 19, 2006 5:19 AM

Personally, I don't regard Lily, Sophie, Lucy or Mia as nicknames. They have long been names in their own right. Lily is after the flower. I guess it could also be short for Lilian or something else. I'd love to know more about your viewpoint, Christine. Perhaps you could elaborate?

By Christine (not verified)
August 19, 2006 1:03 PM

I'll agree with you that Mia and Lily are debatable.
I grew up with two Mias, but one was short for Maria, and the other for Marissa. It can also be a nn for Amelia, so while it is now a common full name, yes, I still regard it as a nn.
Lily I have always seen as a nn for Lilian or Elizabeth.

I'm afraid I don't really understand how Sophie or Lucy could NOT be nn. Granted, They have both been long used as first names, but to me, the long e ending and the fact that they both have longer forms, says nn.

By Bev (not verified)
August 19, 2006 5:01 PM

Actually, Ricky Ricardo's name (and I presume Little Ricky's as well) was Enrique, which is the Spanish equivalent of Henry. Yes, I am a repository of TV trivia; I need a life.

I have met a couple of women who had nicknames as given names. One was my aunt Betty (not Elizabeth, not Bettina, Betty). My grandparents were into alliteration; they named their daughters Barbara, Betty and Beverly (I'm sort of named for her) and their sons Wayne, Warren and Wendell. Wendell, BTW, went by Dick. Go figure. He died when I was very young, so I don't know if his middle name was Richard.

The other was my college roommate, Jessie. Not Jessica, Jessie. She was from an old Southern family and I believe she was named after a relative.

I know many Dicks (also know a few small-d dicks, but that's another story) but they seem perfectly secure with the nn. I've always wondered about that race-car driver named Dick Trickle. Dude, if your first name is Richard and your last name is Trickle, for heaven's sake, go by Rich!

By Nancy R. Callahan (not verified)
August 19, 2006 6:33 PM

Talk about a prescient post, Laura: I just finished reading a news article about a man from Uttar Pradesh who suffers from diphallus and wants to get one of his two penises surgically removed, and then I pop over here and see the title of this post -- "disappearing Dicks" and all. :)

By Char (not verified)
August 19, 2006 10:09 PM

As I mentioned in the previous post, my brother Richard prefers, well, Richard. However, while he can countenance Dick, he reviles Rick. I believe it would come to blows if someone insisted on calling him that. He says every Rick in history is a a complete arse.

We also know a Rick who jokes that his name is spelled with a silent "P". Richard says that's fitting for all men who allow themselves to be called Rick!

Being from Saskatchewan, I remember the Dick Assman thing. Dick Trickle doesn't sound so bad next to that...

By Margot (not verified)
August 21, 2006 2:09 AM

I don't see Sophie and Lucy as nicknames but as French forms of the Latin names Sophia and Lucia. French names invariably chop off the final "a" and replace it with an "ie." So we think of Julie as a nickname, but in French that's the traditional form, same as Julia. I suspect (though I should check!) that when my mother was named Sophie, 72 years ago, "Sophia" was very rare in the U.S.

By aj (not verified)
August 21, 2006 3:49 AM

Lily is NOT a nickname, anymore than Rose, Violet, or Petunia. This is one of the rare cases where I think the spelling of a name makes a big difference even though it doesn't change the pronunciation: Lily is a given name after the flower, Lilly or Lillie is a nickname for Lillian or somesuch.

By Christina (not verified)
August 21, 2006 2:39 PM

Sophie may be the french form, but don't 90% or more of Sophias go by Sophie? Every single Sophia I've met does. French form or not, it is often used as a nn, so I put it as one.

Same with Lily. I've seen it spelled that way as a nn for Elizabeth or Lillian, and once even for Emily, so I put it as a nn. It may not always be a nn, but since I have seen it spelled that way, it made sense to me.

By Jamie (not verified)
August 21, 2006 4:54 PM

When I was a the park with my niece Zoe, she made friends with twin girls named Lily and Violet. Her mom said that they were her flower girls.

By Marjorie (not verified)
August 21, 2006 5:47 PM

My grand-neice is marrying a man christened "Rick" - he is one of the nicest young men I have had the good fortune to meet.

And since there have been a few rude comments already....there was the 1946 "Torso murder" in Hamilton, Ontario. Evelyn Dick had killed and dismembered her husband, spawning the schoolyard chant:

You cut off his legs...
You cut off his arms...
You cut off his head...
How could you Mrs Dick?

I trust I may be forgiven for this lapse of good taste but couldn't resist!

By Medbh (not verified)
August 21, 2006 9:44 PM

I'm surprised that no one, including Laura, gave Rich as a nn for Richard. I know two Richards and they both go by Rich. Perhaps that is more common in Canada?

By Julie (not verified)
August 22, 2006 2:50 PM

I have never heard of Julie being a nickname. It is interesting though. There aren't many nicknames you can get out of any Julie related name. I am often called Jewels though.

By Keren (not verified)
August 22, 2006 9:15 PM

In England Sophie, Lucy, Lily and Mia really aren't considered nicknames. Names like Molly and Polly used to be nicknames, but are now names in their own right, and are very popular. Lots of shortened forms are being given as names to little boys: Charlie, Alfie, and Archie in particular. For girls, there are lots of girls called Ellie, Katie and Millie and Rosie. Annie used to be popular about 15 years ago, but was superceded by Anna, Hannah and recently I have noticed a lot of babies named Anya among familes we know. Maybe we Brits just like that eee sound at the end of names..

10 years ago I was in a childbirth group in North London. Our babies were called Katie, Abi (short for Abigail), Ella, Aila, Tom and (my daughter) Phoebe. Lots of short forms there...and since then some of their siblings include Holly, Rosie, Sophie..and Freddie who is a girl!


By Steph (not verified)
August 23, 2006 12:48 AM

My husband was a Ricky, now is a Rick, but not short for Richard either although everyone assumes so... it's short for Frederick. I also knew a Richard who went by Rich.

And I disagree with the PP who said that Sophie and Lily are nicknames. Sophie is a French form of Sophia, like Isabelle is the French form of Isabella.

By Michelle (not verified)
August 23, 2006 9:35 AM

It's funny that I never even thought of Sophie and Lucy as nicknames. I thought they were just different versions of the same name; for example, Sofia (Greek), Sophia (Italian/Spanish), Sophie (French), and then Sophy (English) which is hardly ever used but I'm fairly certain it is a real name. Same goes for Lucia/Lucie/Lucy (although I don't think there is a Greek form of that). Is that right?

By Christiana (not verified)
August 23, 2006 12:49 PM

I always saw Sophie/Lily as either nicknames (Sophia/Lillian) or names in their own right. Especially Lily because of the flower connection. If I was to name my daughter Lillian, I'd call her Lily though.
Never ever thought of Lucy as a nn. Lucy sounds so much more americanized than Lucia that I never really associated the two. I guess Lucy is a nn for Lucielle (as in Ball), but whatever. Interesting that I'd never thought of that before. Same with Mia - always thought of it as it's own name. I like the name Katie, but it's deffinately in that nn category to me, unless you spell it Cady.

By Lisa R. (not verified)
August 23, 2006 5:44 PM

I just realized that my series of nicknames are also all fairly common full names...

I'm Elizabeth, and I go by Lisa (pretty common). Many friends shorten that to "Lis" (pronounced Lees), which is very similar to the full name "Lise" (maybe not common, but certainly not "out there"). One friend (for whom "Lis" is apparently too big a mouthfull) calls me "Li" (again with the long ee sound), which could be Lee or Leigh (which was common enough when I was growing up, but may be rarer now).

Just odd...

By Christiana (not verified)
August 23, 2006 7:40 PM

Lisa - I know several people who either have the nicknaming a nickname issue or they end up with a nickname longer than their orginal name. My friend Amy is an example. Amy is pretty hard to shorten, but started calling her Ames. Which then became Cherry Ames (a series of books about a nusring student that were popular in the 50s) and then Cherry. I know an Elizabeth who became Lizzie, then Liz, then Weebee (don't ask). My mother, named Alexa (a shortened version of Alexander) she gets called Lexie, then Lex. Just goes to show you that people are lazy and don't like to say lots of syllables.

Of course, my friend Soraya never gets a shortened version - which proves that there are nickname proof names out there.

By Tansey (not verified)
August 24, 2006 3:00 AM

Rich Trickle? Good heavens - sounds like a contaminated river! Better to stay away from the whole Richard/Rich/Rick/Dick names altogether.
According to the Guiness Book of Names, Sophia was in the top 100 names in the 1830s in the UK. Sophie was apparently then a common way of shortening it 'en famille'. Nowdays it's given as a name in its own right like Lucy, Rosie, Katy etc.
My daughter Laura got Laws and Lawlaws as nicknames from her friends. The American version, Lawrie, was slapped down by her at an early age after seeing some ghastly child of the same name on TV.

By Christiana (not verified)
August 24, 2006 7:14 PM

Tansey - where are you from again? Interesting nns for Laura - can you spell it out phoenetically, maybe you pronounce it differently than we do in the states. We do more of a "Lor" sound for Laura and Laurie.

By Tansey (not verified)
August 25, 2006 2:10 AM

Hi Christiana - I'm from New Zealand. Laura is pronounced 'Lor - ra' here, to rhyme with more/roar - most small children call her 'Roar-a' as do my student boarders from Asia, who find the 'L' sound hard work.

By Bev (not verified)
August 25, 2006 2:12 AM

I've always thought of Lucy as a nickname for Lucille, but I know it isn't necessarily. I know one Julie whose real name is Julia, but most of the Julies I met weren't, and most of the other Julias are known as Julia.

The Amy-Ames-Cherry thing reminds me of a couple of people I know with weird nn derivations. My b/f's nephew is Matthew but was called Fergie as a kid. Matthew became Massey, which reminded b/f of the tractor(?) company Massey-Ferguson, hence Fergie.

My friend James, named after his dad, acquired the nickname Jacques, French for James. His family liked messing with words and sometimes would pronounce it Jay-queez. Now he is universally known as Jake. Many people don't have a clue he's actually a James not a Jacob.

My nn has been nn'ed, too. I'm Bev but have been called Bevy, which is of course British slang for beverage. A singer friend does a song with the lines "Pass the bevy round, lads." I'm not that kind of girl!

And I was Bevvles in college. Long story.

By David (not verified)
September 23, 2006 6:31 AM

I'd really like to know, so if you don't know please pass this on: WHY is Polly a nickname for Mary? I can understand Lolita for Dolores, but Polly for Mary has me lost.

By Christiana (not verified)
September 25, 2006 8:04 PM

Good question, david. I'm sorry I don't have an answer. I'm assuming it's similar to why Peg is a nn for Margaret. Margaret goes to Meg, then to Peg. mary goes to Molly, then to Polly. But I actually have no idea. And aren't most nn shorter than their beginnings? Polly doesn't seem any sorter than Mary to me!

By Julie H (not verified)
September 26, 2006 2:44 AM

Ijust have to comment how timely this all seems to me. Just tonight, my husband and I were discussing nns and the fact that "Julie" is, in fact, a nn for me. Officially I'm Julia. My mom liked the name Julie, but thought it wouldn't be professional-sounding enough if I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer. So they named me Julia, but I've ALWAYS been called Julie.

By Mia Jade Connor (not verified)
January 13, 2007 8:09 PM

Just thought I'd add my two pence worth!! My name's Amelia but the only time I get that is when I'm getting told off! The rest of the tie I go by Mia. I'm nearly 17 though and I think that its only in recent years that Mia's become popular again in its own right. My mum and dad had decided to call me Mia even before I was born but my mum thought that Amelia was a more formal-sounding full name for job applicatins etc!! Mia xx

By Todd (not verified)
January 14, 2007 6:42 PM

But when did "Dick" decome a nickname for Richard?

By Sophia (not verified)
January 20, 2007 8:09 PM

90% of Sophias certainly do not go by Sophie! I've never actually heard of this happening. Sophie is more common in the UK though simply because we're closer to France, and Sophie has been the French version of that name for centuries. There have been times (Victorian times (though it was pronounced differently then to rhyme with 'fire' - I HATE this!) and also nowadays) when the classical version has come into fashion. I certainly don't regard Sophie as a nickname for Sophia; I'd be very surprised if someone called me that and I would just assume they had got my name wrong!
I guess the same goes for Lucy - it's just an anglicised spelling of the French name Lucie, which again obviously comes from the Latin Lucia. Lucille is just another variant stemming from Lucia.
Mia means 'mine' in Italian; I imagine some Mias are named for this reason, without another name in mind.

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