An inquiring reader (Gladys M. of Morrison, Illinois) wrote me with this question: Why is the name Richard abbreviated to Dick and where did this originate?
A mighty fine question Gladys, and I’m glad that you asked it. Apparently when those meandering hordes called the “Normans” invaded England in 1066 they brought with them a weird sort of “Frenchified German” that made the conquered Anglo-Saxons have trouble pronouncing the letter “R”, so the name “Richard” became “Dick”, which makes no sense at all, but when you’ve been conquered by a bunch of Medieval guys who call themselves the “Normans” your self esteem is probably in the toilet (which hadn’t even been invented yet) so who cares what your name is, unless of course it’s Norman. Which brings me to a cute, yet true story, that I’m sure you’ll want to read, especially you Gladys.
My parents had two perfectly healthy sons in 1965, my older brothers Dan and Brian. What they didn’t have, or plan on having, was a third son…moi. (That’s French for “me”, not Norman for “Dick”). In early February 1966 yours truly was brought into this world on a foggy winter morning, gaining the name Richard Ripley…not a bad sounding name for someone who wasn’t supposed to “be here”. I could’ve done a lot worse, like “Purvis Elroy McClendon Ripley” or some other name that could’ve damaged a newborns fragile ego. Anyway…I’ve heard that I was named after my Dad’s best friend in high school, or perhaps sentimentally after my Uncle Richard who had died several years prior to my birth. I had a great family and loving home to be raised in, and it never occurred to me (as it doesn’t to most little boys) that what I was named and what they called me was different. I was called “Dick”, everybody called me that and it didn’t mean anything until I went to grade school…then the proverbial “poop” hit the fan.
It wasn’t until around third grade that the other kids, mostly older, started making fun of the duality of my name and a certain part of the male anatomy which has several slang names (most are fit to print here but you know what I’m talking about-so figure it out). The “joke” usually went like this at recess time. The kid would come up behind me and shout “Hey DICK!!” Everyone on the playground would turn and look at the kid and me, including the poor sap of a teacher who drew the short straw that day and had recess duty, and the kid would shrug his shoulders and tell the teacher “what? I’m just saying his name!” The kids would laugh, the teacher would walk away and I’d be standing there, just kinda hating life at that moment. Truth be told, I didn’t get beat up simply for the fact that the bullies didn’t have to lay a finger on me to hurt me, but it was humiliating just the same. Anyway, life went on. Friends and family continued to call me Dick, because that’s who I was. Friends would ask me “How’d you get that name?” I’d tell them the story of how Dick is a shortened version of Richard. “I still don’t get it.” they’d reply…neither did I. How was I to know some crummy Normans had crossed the English Channel and fouled up an otherwise good language some nine hundred years earlier? I bet they never thought that some kid in the mid-western part of a yet undiscovered continent getting verbally abused several times a week at recess simply because the dumb English couldn’t pronounce the letter “R”!
Anyway…as a kid growing up in a small farming community I knew of many of the community’s members…some of them even named Dick. What I observed about these men were the common denominators. Older. Tough looking. Hard working. Most had “flat top” haircuts. Some even had a tattoo on their forearm, long before it was so commonplace to get a “badass tattoo” while sipping on a low-fat cinnamon dolce frappucino in the neighborhood tattoo parlor/Starbucks. Back when these guys got their tattoos it was when they were in one of the armed forces, probably in WWII or Korea. It was rumored that one of these men had a “topless dancing girl” tattooed on his upper arm, but you had to be in at least junior high for him to show it to you. These guys did the usual stuff a small community needs from it’s inhabitants, some drove school bus, others the ambulance, some served on the school board, while others on the bank board. We even had a veterinarian named Dick, but most called him “Doc”. I thought to myself “those guys don’t look bothered about their name.”
In the fall of 1978 I entered the sixth grade that was taught under the iron fist of Mrs. Keith, the baddest assed teacher of them all. She didn’t take any crap, even the bullies kept their distance from her. She was around five foot, four inches…which was still taller than our classes tallest boy, Danny “Funnybutt” Honeycutt, (as we boys hadn’t hit puberty yet-but the girls in our class had literally “blossomed” that past summer—if ya know what I mean-hubba hubba). To make matters worse she had atop her head the most fire red hellicous beehive hairdo which made her slightly taller than your average NBA power forward. To top off her persona, she sported “cat eye” framed glasses and had a voice like “Maude” of the All In the Family TV show (or Maude of the Maude TV show). You just didn’t mess around with Mrs. Keith if you wanted to live to see Seventh grade. Anyway (my favorite segue word) the very first day of Sixth grade Mrs. Keith was going through roll call when it came to my name, mind you she already knew what my name was as it was that small of a school, but she called out my name:
Mrs. Keith: Richard Ripley
Mrs. Keith: What do you want to be called? Dick or Richard?
Mrs. Keith: Very well.
I swear that’s the way it went. From that point on, I was Richard…to the teachers, to a few smartass kids…still Dick…but I ignored them until they called me Richard. I was kinda surprised that the National News with David Brinkley didn’t pick up the momentous news that I had changed names instantaneously that morning, but what’s a twelve year old to do?
The taunts came pretty hard and fast for the next four years, which shouldn’t have surprised me as I went through sixth grade, two years of junior high and my freshman year of high school. My sophomore year of high school was a little different, my voice had deepened and I had grown up, up so much that the usual bunch of idiots that had taunted me were now looking UP at me. Plus my focus in life had changed, there were plenty of girls and I didn’t care if they called me Richard, Dick, Purvis, whatever baby…just call me! Progress. Little steps.
Fast forward to the late 1990’s. I’m married; we have three little girls and are driving home from a family reunion (which consequently is usually attended by older people, who still call me Dick). I explained the whole “name thing” to our daughters, “Mommy calls me ‘Richard’ but Uncle Louie still calls me ‘Dick’. Understand?” But I think I lost them; you’ll have that with a 7, 4 & 1 year old.
As I enter middle age I’m starting to think a little more often about those tough, old men of my childhood. Their buzz cuts, the way they carried themselves, the way they just did what needed to be done and did it without fanfare. Not famous. Not wealthy. Just good men. Hopefully they enjoyed their lives.
I’m hoping that I have as positive an impact on those around me, as those folks that have come before me like my parents, grandparents and other family members. It’s a tall order. They’ve been excellent role models. I’ve been loved by them and I hope that I’ve sufficiently returned that love back to them.
I’m thinking of digging around in my old junk box to retrieve something that I put away over thirty years ago. It shouldn’t be too hard to find, it’s the size of a small hubcap. It’s a big old brass belt buckle with the name “DICK” forged onto the front of it, and it may just end up on my belt sooner rather than later.