A Consideration of Nicknames or, Every Tom, Dick and Chicken

Last week I spent a day driving around the county to deliver copies of the volumes of Door County photo books that our company, Peninsula Publishing & Distribution, Inc., had just published and, since my wife had the day off, she decided to tag along for the day.

As I navigated through the county I had some time to daydream and eventually I asked my wife whether she had ever wondered how “Dick” became a shortened form or nickname for “Richard.” Not surprisingly, she replied that she had never really thought about it. However, since she has tolerated me for more than 20 years, she added, “I think you should find out.”

So the starting point for this line of thought was that my given name is Stephen, but I am normally called Steve. My wife’s name is Barbara but most people call her Barb. How these everyday appellations came to be is fairly obvious: in both cases they are just shortened forms of our given names (though in my case, the Steve is more reflective of the alternate spelling, Steven, of my given name).

Nicknames have been around a very long time, but the origin of the term “nickname” is interesting in its own right. After all, at first glance, one has to wonder, “What in the world is a nick name?”

This is actually fairly easy to track. At one point in time the word “ich” or “ick” meant other. So if you used a shortened form of someone’s name, or an alternative name for someone, you were using an ick name. Over time an ick name became compressed into simply a nickname, or “an other name.” The word “ick” as an independent word has long since faded from our language, but it lingers still in “nickname.” And for all you budding etymologists out there, this method of language evolution is called elision.

And this brings us back to the question I posed my wife, “How did ‘Dick’ become a shortened form (or nickname) for Richard?”

Well, folks, my suspicions for this origin proved correct: humans are lazy. Etymologists believe that Richard derived from the Proto-Germanic “Rikharthu,” which meant “hard ruler.” In Old High German, this became “Ricohard,” then to Old English as “Richaerd,” before becoming the “Richard” we know today.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Richard was an extremely popular male name and, back then, of course, everything was written by hand and the scribes, probably to combat cramping, took to shortening Richard to Rich, Ric or Rick.

And this leads us to another common human characteristic: we love rhyme. Thus, in the early 13th century, nicknames for Richard like Dick and Hick became popular.

Today, of course, the nickname “Hick” for Richard is long gone from our lexicon, but “Dick” has not only remained, it has become common. The reason for this is that in the 16th century “Dick” became slang for men in general. Indeed, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 he writes, “I am sworn brother to a leash of Drawers, and can call them by their names, as Tom, Dicke and Francis.”

I can hear you, dear readers, exclaiming, “But Steve, Shakespeare didn’t write ‘… Tom, Dick and Harry,’ he uses ‘Francis’ instead! How in the world is this relevant?”

Rest assured, folks, the answer is an easy one or I wouldn’t have mentioned the line from Shakespeare. You see, Shakespeare has Prince Henry speak the above quoted line and, did I mention, that a common nickname for “Henry” is “Harry?” So the line of thought amongst Shakespearian scholars, is that this line is a play upon an already common phrase, i.e. “Tom, Dick and Harry.”

By the way, the phrase “Tom, Dick and Harry” is a rhetorical device called an ascending tricolon. The chief characteristic of this device is three words listed in order of their syllabic length. Some other examples of a tricolon include “hook, line and sinker” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (which, as another aside, I consider to be the greatest movie ever made!).

Most of us get our nicknames when we are young, typically around middle school. When I was that age, I happened to have a close friend who was also named Steve (though his given name was spelled Steven, while mine is Stephen, and the story of my given name is a story for another day). So with two Steves constantly in each other’s company, I quickly became “Grutz,” a shortened form of my last name, Grutzmacher. My father, was also known as “Grutz” in high school, despite his given name being Harold and, to the best of my knowledge, having no friends that were also name Harold.

My father went by Hal, of course, the commonly accepted shortening of Harold. But when I was quite young I was always confused because my father’s parents (my paternal grandparents) always called him “June.” It wasn’t until I was older that I came to understand that he was Harold Martin Grutzmacher, Jr. and, thus, his parents called him June rather than Hal or Harold.

With this family lineage of being called Grutz you may well believe that my son, Andrew, carried on the tradition: that when he reached a certain age his classmates and friends began calling him Grutz, as well. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) this was never the case.

Andrew has gone by the nickname “Chicken” for years now. Indeed, even his teachers at Gibraltar took to calling him Chicken. I can’t tell you the story of how Andrew became known as Chicken; this is, after all, a family publication. I can tell you that it had nothing to do with the slang meaning of chicken, as in being very afraid. So, if you want to know the story, you will have to ask him. I should note, however, that he clucks better than anyone I have ever known.