Peeping Toms, bloody Marys...and disappearing Dicks
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. (Er...in 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.