My name is Woodcock. This fact did not make much difference to me until my rural one-room schoolhouse closed, after I finished the sixth grade. From then on, I had to ride the schoolbus to a public school in a nearby town. That was in 1967. Ever since, my last name has been a joke. I’ve lived a lot of places in the U.S., but the only place where a fair number of people thought first of the bird and only later (if at all) of a penis joke was Maine. (In case anyone is curious, in another post I went to the trouble of trying to figure out where the name actually came from.)
I guess I got used to the joking quickly enough. It didn’t seem to bother me much, for some reason. Some of that may have been due to my older brother’s influence. I looked up to him. So when his peers called him Splinter, I took it as (and I think it mostly was) a sign of coarse friendliness, in that post-World War II era when most of his buddies had nicknames. The remarks seemed to roll off him. He did have some ready retorts, for those who overdid it, but that sort of comeback was rarely required. Before him, the only nickname I ever heard for my dad was Woody. In some cases, that may have been a play on the old Woody Woodpecker cartoons, but it was still relatively indirect and generally nonoffensive.
As for myself, after the initial shock, it was mostly just tiresome. Soon it seemed like I had heard the jokes and wordplays a thousand times before. I guess if I were back there now, I’d be curious about the possibility of implicit rejection in those jokes, but that was beyond my conscious awareness at the time.
But I know it’s not like that with some people. Sometimes kids are cursed with surnames or, worse, with full names, that set them up for a lifetime of severe disrespect. And some people are more sensitive than others, or have had especially searing experiences. It also seems that people have grown much more formal and cautious than they were back then. Maybe that phenomenon has become a little less extreme than it was in the 1980s; not sure. It does seem that people are still more likely to go by Sandra or William than Sandy or Bill.
And of course Dick has become ridiculed to a degree not imagined in the 1960s. A search leads to indications that it was first used to refer to a penis sometime around 1890, whereas it had been a short version of Richard for several hundred years before that. Evidently other given names have also been used to mean penis, notably Peter, Roger, Willie, and Thomas, though I think not nearly as often as Dick. For some reason, in recent years Dick seems to have been treated as primarily meaning penis and only secondarily as a short form of Richard. (It has also been less frequently used in other ways, e.g., as shorthand for “detective.”) Richard, itself, is one of only three, among the top ten most popular boys’ names over the past 100 years, that had reportedly vanished from the top 100 list for 2013. I would guess that the Americans who still go by Dick tend, by now, to be even more hard-boiled than I became on the subject of my surname.
There has been no comparable tendency for women’s names — no widespread linkage of names with female anatomy. As Jennifer Cullen observes, men have all sorts of names and nicknames for their sex organs, and women just don’t. She proposes assorted names for vaginas, with explanations — Jewel, Pearl, etc. Such names could have come into vogue — some of her explanations are pretty clever — but they haven’t. There just doesn’t seem to be much interest in personifying female genitalia. Maybe it is easier to invent a separate personality, deserving its own name, when your sex organ can display some visible independence of the body and mind to which it is attached.
Except for the part about ridicule of people who do experience real harm from the experience, most of the foregoing information is probably not very important. There is, however, one further development worth contemplating. “A dick” has become, very commonly, a disparaging form of male reference. This usage became commonplace without much discussion. It just seems natural.
And in a sense, it is. Before ill-behaved men were called dicks, they were called pricks — which has been a term for the penis since at least the 1590s. That may help to explain the easy acceptance of “dick” as a form of insult: “prick” has been around for a long time. Calling someone a prick, or a dick, is probably about as offensive as calling him a bastard or a son of a bitch. Collectively, we do seem to have a lot of disparaging terms for disliked males, but perhaps that’s a separate point.
Maybe Jennifer Cullen’s suggested names for the vagina haven’t been adopted because names like “Jewel” are positive or flattering. We do have words like “cunt” and “twat” to characterize undesirable females. But these words are widely regarded as very coarse. A search for lists of most offensive words leads to various sources that consider “cunt,” especially, to be far more offensive than “dick” or “prick.”
This gives us an interesting state of affairs. It is possible to disparage men and women alike with terms referring to their genitals; yet for some reason the male insults are widely used on slight provocation, and are generally considered only moderately objectionable, whereas one or more comparable terms applied to females are broadly deemed extreme: “cunt,” according to a number of those sources, is the most offensive word in the English language.
Now, if we are to strive for equality of men and women, it seems that we might consider using “cunt” much more frequently. This, however, is not the direction of social work verbiage. With due regard to the vagaries of Google hit counters, a pair of searches suggests that prick or dick appear in posts referring to social work about 20 times as often as do cunt or twat. I, myself, have heard social workers use those offensive male-specific terms — but never, I think, the female-specific ones. I suppose a social work student could strike a blow for equality by using some such female reference in class, the next time a classmate calls some man a dick, but there would likely be unequal consequences.
Some may feel that so many men deserve to be called dicks because, frankly, so many are. This line of reasoning may get the situation somewhat backwards. If you call a young man an asshole every day, you can expect behavior differing from what you’d likely get if you called him a good man or a sweetheart. There is a working impression that people tend to rise or fall to the standards you set for them. Calling them dicks is one way to suppress their sense of self-worth, for whatever political purposes that may serve, but it comes with the probable side effect of adversely shaping self- and societal expectations — especially when it presents an ongoing standard over a period of centuries.
Language is a window into our minds, and into our worlds. The foregoing comparison of “dick” against “cunt” raises the question of whether it has become natural to place women on a pedestal while treating men as glorified apes, suited to the brutalities of the prisons, wars, and workplaces of which society has deemed them deserving for centuries if not millennia. We may be recovering a sense of gender balance when the use of such terms is viewed, in social work and elsewhere, as equally tolerable or intolerable regardless of gender. To move in that direction, it seems that men and women alike may need to think about the practice of objectifying people on the basis of their body parts.