No need for dicking around on this one. The word “dick” means a whole dickload of different things, so let’s get into it. Starting with…
Dick as in Richard
Richard has been a name for a long time — over a thousand years, in fact. It derives from the Frankish ethnic group known as the Normans, who conquered England in 1066, making the name “Richard” suddenly a popular English name. The name itself means “brave ruler,” from the words “ric” (meaning king), and “hard” (meaning brave).
With Richard being a common name, the nicknames “Rick” and “Rich” were born fairly naturally, as they were both a shortening of the name. As for “Dick,” that was created in the Middle Ages, when it became popular to have rhyming names as nicknames. As the guys at Today I Found Out explain, it was common for short names to be given soundalike nicknames during this period, like “Bob” for “Rob” and “Bill” for “Will.” In the same fashion, Rick was given the nicknames “Hick” and “Dick.” While Hick faded over time, Dick managed to stick around throughout the centuries and up until today, where it adorns guys like Dick Cavett, Dick Van Dyke, Dick Cheney, Dick Durbin, Dick Butkus and a whole bunch of other Dicks.
Dick as in, Well, Your Dick
This dick’s origin is a matter of some dispute, with two competing theories as to how “dick” became a substitute for the word “penis.” The first theory derives from the name Dick, which gained so much popularity during the Middle Ages and onward that it became a word simply meaning “man” or “dude,” kind of like how “Jack” might be used for a generic guy’s name, like “Hey Jack!” or “Hit the road, Jack!”
With “Dick” being a generic word for “guy,” this theory, according to Grammarphobia, states that it also became a substitute for a man’s junk, which began as British military slang sometime in the mid-19th century.
The other theory of how dick became a penis credits English poet and author Geoffrey Chaucer, who used the verb “dighte” as a verb for sex, and that “dick” derived from that. To offer an example of dighte in contect, here’s an excerpt from Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Prologue:
Yet tikled it his herte, for that he!
Wende that I hadde of hym so greet chiertee.
I swoor that al my walkynge out by nyghte
Was for t’espye wenches that he dighte.
I don’t know about you, but that definitely got me hot.
Dick as in “Dicking Around”
Let’s be honest here, “dick” is just a funny word to say — we know better than most — so it’s no wonder that once it came to mean “penis,” its use would flourish, much like “fuck” has, well, a fuckton of meaning nowadays. This is pretty much why “dick” has also come to mean “nothing” or “a waste of time,” as in, “You don’t know dick!” or “Quit dicking around!” According to Merriam-Webster, the usage of dick in this context began in 1948, quite possibly by author Norman Mailer in his novel, The Naked and the Dead:
“You’re my son, and you’re just like me, the only reason you been dicking around is there ain’t anything big enough for you to get your teeth in.”
Dick as in “Don’t Be Such a Dick!”
Dick as an insult began in the 1960s, with the first known example being from Norman Bogner’s 1966 novel Seventh Avenue: “He’s a dick. I don’t know from respect, except for my parents.” This seems to be a simple derivative of “dick” as in “penis.” So just imagine it as, “Don’t be such a penis!” or “He’s such a penis” or “Hey you penis, you didn’t give me all my change!”
Dick as in Detective
While this is used a bit less often nowadays, dick was a fairly common word for a private detective in the early 20th century — think Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and later, Dick Tracy. As Twitter’s Etymology Nerd tells me, “The word ‘dick’ as meaning ‘detective’ was first recorded in a 1905 dictionary of slang.” No one’s exactly sure how this version of dick came to be, but the Etymology Nerd tells me there are a few competing theories.
The first is that it’s simply a shortening of the word detective, which is why it sounds so much like it. This theory, while simplistic, does seem to hold some water by the very fact that “dick” seems to be a simple, all-purpose word that’s come to mean lots of things, even more than the modern uses laid out here. According to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, “dick” has also meant “declaration,” “riding whip,” “leather apron” and even “clitoris.” For that last one, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English offered up this tasteful example: “She had a dick so long she had to be circumcised.”
The other major theory is that “it could come from a 19th-century criminal slang word ‘dik’ meaning ‘to watch,’” the Etymology Nerd explains. Similar words to this are also “dekko” or “decko,” which derive from the Hindu word “dekho” meaning “look.” If either of these first two theories are correct, it means that this version of the word evolved totally separate from all the other dicks out there, which might share a common origin in that they all may derive — in one form or another — from the name “Dick.”
But there’s a third theory online that credits author J. E. Preston Muddock, who created the character Dick Donovan. As Private Investigator Info explains, “This Scottish detective became a benchmark prototype for the many investigative heroes to follow, and it would be easy to see how his name could be the real reason for the terminology to be used to describe a professional investigator.”
While Dick Donovan is a lesser-known character now, around the turn of the century — when “dick” came to mean “detective” — Donovan was just as popular as Sherlock Holmes. And if this is the case, then this dick also derives from the name Dick, making it the same old dick as all the rest of these dicks we’ve talked about.
By the way, the word “dick” appears 56 times in this article. You’re welcome, dicks.