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.

Peeping Toms and Bloody Marys

Aug 10th 2006

A reader here recently took issue with the suggestion that Tom is a friendly, likeable name:

I personally cannot separate it from the term "peeping tom"-it has pervy undertones, which are not exactly likeable IMO :).

A peeping tom is certainly not an attractive image. But is that association really so much stronger than a tom cat, tomfoolery, Uncle Tom, or Tom Thumb? And are the unsavory connotations worse than what emanates from a Bloody Mary or Jack the Ripper? I'd go further, but it would be unseemly for a baby name blog to set off not-safe-for-work alarms. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to conjure up undesirable associations for names like John, Cherry, Patsy, Jack, Randy, Fanny, Rod, Willie, Peter, and Dick.

Lots of traditional English names, and especially nicknames, are loaded with slang meanings. Many are also common words independent of their name usage (ever feel like the phone company's trying to Rob you when you get your Bill?) But in most cases, the name can take it. Names like Jack have survived and thrived despite a plethora of dodgy meanings.

In fact, such a large number of different meanings tends to yield a blunt impact, even when many of the connections are negative. John, for instance, can be a jilted lover, a prostitute's customer or a toilet, but it's still a strong and viable name. Personally, I'd put Tom in the same category: the many associations tend to cancel one another out.

A name can face deeper trouble when a single strong connotation takes over. Even then a long, strong history as a given name can usually carry a name through the hard times -- but a name like Cherry is out of luck. It was the fruit and flower connotation that attracted parents to the name to begin with, so when the connotation shifted the name bowed out.

"But hold on a second," you might be thinking. "What about Dick? Isn't that a classic old name that's been killed off?" A very fair question, which I'll talk about next time.

First names that are middle names that are last names

Aug 2nd 2006

Last week I talked about the difficulty of finding sibling names that strike the same note as Tatum. After reading your responses, I must tip my cap to reader Camilla for her inspired suggestion of Greer. Like Tatum, it's a compact surname that doesn't sound like anything else. (No name ending in -eer has ever made the U.S. top 1000 names list.) Also like Tatum it has a vaguely masculine sound but feminine associations, thanks to a well-known actress -- in this case, Academy Award winner Greer Garson. Bullseye, a perfect match.

Second place in popular opinion went to my suggestion Harper, with Flannery a distant third. I had also discussed Mackenzie, which has some of the same pop-culture-driven history as Tatum, and we could easily throw in Carson for author Carson McCullers. Each of the names mentioned is a traditional surname launched into feminine forename use by a single celebrity. But thinking about it further, I realized that Tatum still, in one way, stands alone. Which of these notable individuals doesn't match?

Eileen Evelyn Greer Garson

Laura Mackenzie Phillips

Lula Carson McCullers

Mary Flannery O'Connor

Nelle Harper Lee

Tatum Beatrice O'Neal

Up until Tatum O'Neal -- the baby of the group -- all of those famous names were middle names. The style-shaping androgynous sounds mostly started out as nods to family tradition, buried behind traditional feminine first names. While a few of the women used their more unconventional middle names as kids, most stuck with their first names into early adulthood. And at least one only used the distinctive middle name on a professional basis, sticking to her birth name in daily life.

Compare this to the current generation of surnamed girls. Not only do we lead with one androgynous surname but we often follow up with another: Madison Taylor, Jordan Mackenzie. Stylistically they're perfect first/middle matches, but they don't leave you any options. Perfect pairings are meant to stay paired. An aspiring author named Madison Taylor can't unfold a new identity by switching to her middle name, any more than a Mary Catherine or Sharon Diane could.

There's a lot to be said for a first/middle pairing that makes a child's full name a harmonious whole. But the tales of names like Mary Flannery and Tatum Beatrice make an intriguing case for mismatches too. A young Madison Miranda's name could grow up many different ways, just as she could.