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Dick's disappearing act

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 13, 2008 02:05 PM

Over at the Daily Beast, Michael Schaffer recently predicted that Dick Cheney's nickname, like the man himself, is on the way out. Not because of its associations with the Vice President's tenure, but because the slang use of the word has spread into casual usage, tainting the traditional name:

As dirty-word prohibitions loosened over the 20th century, more and more people began to hear the word and think of something other than, say, NBC executive Dick Ebersol. Slang dictionaries show a progression of other negative connotations for the word, which was used to connote an incompetent or a bully. Newly abusive conjunctions* also came into fashion, as the word became attached to -head, -brain, and -nose, the latter of which the OED helpfully informs us first cropped up in 1974, the year Tricky Dick and his own ski-slope nose left Washington for good.

Like most fashion changes, this one strikes people of different generations in different ways. Most anyone old enough to remember Dick Clark in his heyday had plenty of high school friends named Dick, and perhaps less exposure to the negative slang elaborations. But younger men, Schaffer says, are opting for Rick and Richard and Ricky instead of Dick.

Still, unlike some naming fads, this one need not affect the proper name itself, with all those Richard nicknames. (Though Richard is already in trouble, says Schaffer: The former name of kings now ranks 99th -- behind Kaden and Cooper! -- among boys' names.)

And Schaffer admits he's only guessing. With Dick Lugar and Dick Holbrooke still on the political scene, the name isn't going to vanish from the news. But Schaffer hopes the end is near:

Cheney . . . is all that we could want for an already anachronistic moniker's last turn in the spotlight: so bald, so taciturn, such a . . . well, you know. Goodbye, Mr. Vice President. You did your name proud.

*Schaffer seems to mean "compound words" here, not "conjunctions" in the part-of-speech sense.

AP file photo

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at

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