Historical Usage of Derogatory Slang

December 5, 2008

Ostriches bury their heads in the sand. In the midst of all the current publishing upheaval (explored elsewhere better than I could ever discuss it; see my own favorite blog for  updates and questions), I’m burying my head in the draft of my novel. Apologies again for all the discussion of craft.

helmshuntPart of the novel-eternally-in-progress is set in Fall 1984 in North Carolina, against the backdrop of the presidential race between Reagan-Bush and Mondale-Ferraro and, on a more local level, the historic senate race between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt. One book that has been particularly helpful for my research into that time period is William D. Snider’s Helms & Hunt: The North Carolina Senate Race, 1984, which offers a great survey of the state’s changing political landscape and fine details about what became at that time the costliest non-presidential political race in American history.  

Today, I did research in a different area.

In one scene, one of my characters uses the the word “dickwad” — asking, specifically:

“But did she ever stand up to you guys? Did she ever say, ‘Hey, wait a second, you dickwads. You’re just not treating me right’?”

…which prompted me, rereading it, to wonder if that was even a term in usage in 1984.

A quick google search found little to explain the historical development of this word (a lesson to my students; googling is not enough), and so I finally turned to the Oxford English Dictionary — not hopefully, I should add, since I felt certain that so august an enterprise simply wouldn’t stoop to that level.


Imagine my surprise, then, when the OED not only included “dickwad” but also its relative (and earlier) version: “dickweed.” As a bonus:  A significant early usage in one case comes from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Score one for the OED; see below for full details.

dickweed, n.

slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.). derogatory.

Brit. /dkwid/, U.S. /dkwid/  [< DICK n.1 + WEED n.1] 

    A stupid, obnoxious, or contemptible person (esp. a man).

1984 J. ALGEO in J. E. Lighter Hist. Dict. Amer. Slang (1994) I. 586/2 [Campus slang.] Dickweed. 1986 C. MATHESON & E. SOLOMON Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (film script) 52 You killed Ted, you Medieval dick-weed! 1992 O. GOLDSMITH First Wives Club I. i. 23 It would be a pleasure to wake that dickweed up early. 2001 S. KING Dreamcatcher vi. 195 Come on, you dickweed.


dickwad, n.

slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.). derogatory.

Brit. /dkwd/, U.S. /dkwd/  [< DICK n.1 + WAD n.1 Cf. earlier DICKWEED n.] 

    = DICKWEED n.

1989 P. MUNRO U.C.L.A. Slang 33 That guy is a total dickwad. 1995 Interzone June 52/1 Now, was I imagining it, or did dickwad here say something about a way out of this mess? 2002 Hotdog Feb. 19/1 Chill out, dickwad.

And the upshot for me? Since only the earlier version of the term was in use in 1984, I’ve correctly updated my dialogue as follows:

“But did she ever stand up to you guys? Did she ever say, ‘Hey, wait a second, you dickweeds. You’re just not treating me right’?”

As for the connections between the second half of this post and the first — the book on the Helms and Hunt — it’s not entirely limited to examples of the type of research a writer might do. Snider’s book also includes its own example of historical usage of perhaps derogatory slang. According to a 1981 Wall Street Journal article, Senator Jesse Helms “apparently had a pet name — a euphemism — for blacks. He calls them ‘Freds’.” The book provides no etymology or further explanation. 

Also of particular interest in recent blogs I read is a discussion about the role of “villains” in literature — focussed on Dennis Lehane’s new book, Any Given Day. See Kyle Semmel’s excellent commentary at First Person Plural, The Writer’s Center’s blog.

— Art Taylor 

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  1. […] been careful about matters of historical authenticity. Very careful: In a blog post he explains why he had to replace the word dickwad with the word dickweed in a passage. Dickwad only came into circulation in 1989, according to the Oxford English […]

  2. Just wanted to tell you all know how much I appreciate your postings guys.
    Found you though google!

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