What’s in a Name?

March, 2020 Word Stories

As our regular readers will know, the relationship between our selected words is not always obvious. Even so, this month’s offering may appear particularly perplexing. What could Nacho, Doll and Hick have in common? These words certainly don’t resemble one another, and they are names for three very different types of thing. Read on, because behind each name there is a story. And behind each of these particular stories, there is a name.


Most Mexicans wouldn’t consider nachos to be a staple of their national cuisine. They are most accurately described as “Tex-Mex”, a style of cooking born in the southwestern United States which, while heavily influenced by Mexican ingredients, is not widely practiced in Mexico itself. In fact, nachos in the sense of “a dish made from baked tortilla chips and cheese” entered the English lexicon before it was widely known in Spanish. Still, it appears that the dish was invented and named (just) south of the border.

Nachos are the creation of a Mexican restaurateur named Ignacio Anaya Garcia. Those familiar with Spanish may know that Nacho is a common diminutive form of Ignacio, itself derived from Ignatius, a Latin name with biblical origins.

Anaya worked at a restaurant named Club Victoria in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, a Mexican border town just across from Eagle Pass, Texas. The story goes that in 1943, a group of American women entered Club Victoria at a time when the chef was absent. Not wanting to turn the hungry customers away, “Nacho” threw together the first ever example of his signature dish, calling them Nachos especiales, meaning “special Nachos”. The shortened name nachos was first recorded in a 1979 American cookbook called A Taste of Texas, which helped propel the dish to popularity across the United States and beyond.


The word doll has its origins as a diminutive form of the first name Dorothy, the English descendant of the Latin name Dorothea, which ultimately comes from the Ancient Greek words dōron, meaning “gift” and thea, the feminine form of theos, meaning “god”.

Dorothy became Doll by a process known as lambdacism, whereby the sound made by the letter r is replaced with that made by the letter l. Although such transformations may seem unusual in English, a number of other well-known diminutives were formed in the same way, such as Hal for Harold, or Sally for Sarah.

As early as the 15th century, the diminutive Doll had developed an often derogatory slang usage, meaning “a mistress” or “promiscuous woman”. It is possible that Shakespeare took inspiration from this usage in naming his character Dorothy “Doll” Tearsheet, a foul-mouthed prostitute in his play Henry IV, Part 2 (1600).

In today’s language, doll can also have a derogatory meaning, being used as a disrespectful term of address, usually for a woman, and often with the implication that she is attractive yet unintelligent. However, there does not appear to be a direct link between this usage and that of Shakespearean times. The meaning “a child’s toy resembling a human” is first attested in the early 16th century, and appears to have quickly eclipsed the earlier sense: by the mid-16th century, it is hard to find any instances of doll being used in reference to a person.

It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the modern-day derogatory sense of doll first appeared. By that time, Shakespearean slang had long been forgotten, and this sense is almost certainly a reference to the attractive yet superficial nature of a toy doll. The verb doll, usually forming part of the phrasal verb doll up, first appeared in the early 20th century, and also, unsurprisingly, derives its meaning from the “toy” sense of doll.


Hick has its origins as a simple by-form of Richard, a traditional English first name that entered the language via the Anglo-Norman name Ricard. Its ultimate ancestor is the Germanic name Rīkaharduz, meaning “strong in rule”, decomposable into rīkō, “ruler” and harduz, “strong”.

Ricard was shortened to Rick, from which a number of rhyming diminutives were created, including Hick, as well Dick, which has endured to this day. Just as Dick was used to describe a nondescript commoner, as in the expression Tom, Dick and Harry, Hick took on a similar meaning, which dates back to at least the 16th century. By the late 17th century, it had come to describe a rural simpleton, particularly a gullible one who could easily be taken advantage of. The 1698 slang dictionary A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew describes a hick as “any Person of whom any Prey can be made..; also a silly Country Fellow.”

Although hick still means largely the same thing today as it did back in the 1600s, it is now most closely associated with rural areas of the United States, and is often used interchangeably with other—mostly derogatory—terms such as hillbilly, yokel and redneck, although the origins of these words are all quite different.

In the early 20th century, hick started to be used attributively, leading to expressions such as hick town, describing an unsophisticated poor rural town typically located in southern or Appalachian regions of the United States.

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