Quick – picture a hick. What’s he look like? Chawin’ on a hickory stick, swiggin’ a jug of moonshine (hic!), somewhere out in the boondocks? Or maybe just another country hayseed, watchin’ cows or gawkin’ at city slickers?
At any rate, it’s probably a he – how likely are you to picture a hick chick? But they must have ’em, to make more hicks, right? Well, now, but tell me, what’s your hick’s name? Is it Jebus, or Billy-Ray, or Cooter? No, I’ll tell you what it must be on his birth certificate: Richard.
Well, if he’s the archetypal hick, anyway, it must be. You see, that’s where hick comes from: an old nickname for Richard – matching similar others, such as Hob for Robert and Hodge for Roger. Taken aback by the phonological transformations? Well, we have Dick for Richard, Harry for Henry, Ted for Edward, and Jack for John, so what’s the big surprise? True, this H set of nicknames has dropped out of use in more recent times, but it was common enough (if perhaps somewhat country-ish) in the 16th century, when its general application to country-types seems to have first come about.
This is certainly not the only name to have come to refer to a type. Those who live in and around Durham in England are called Geordies, for instance, from a nickname for George. Irishmen are sometimes called Paddies (but, unlike Geordie, this is rather rude). Cops in some US cities have in the past been called Shamuses due to how many Irishmen there were in the police force. And on and on. Interestingly, although hick really isn’t used as a personal name anymore or for any other competing designation, many people still find country hick worth saying (or writing).
But still, why hick and not, say, hob? Aside from hob having another use (plus the competing taste of hobknob) and hodge being a family name, I’m sure it doesn’t hurt the effect that hick has a short, rough sound, rhyming with stick (and sick and thick) and has that rough, almost inchoate breathing at the start. It also has some vaguer echoes of a more vulgar word. And if you think about terms that have been used to refer to an unsophisticated rural or smalltown location, there are indeed some that make use of such a vulgar term, and also of course some that use hick – such as hick town (the most common collocation of hick). (Interestingly, the use of hick as an adjective seems to be less than 100 years old.)
It is true, mind you, that Hicks is a family name. And so we have at least two towns named Hicksville, which cannot help but be a bit unflattering, I suppose. At least for the three-thousand-some residents of the one in Ohio, which is a 40-minute, 30-mile drive from the nearest city of any note, Fort Wayne, Indiana. You will see, however, that they have a website; you be the judge of whether it helps or hurts the impression: www.hicksvilleusa.com. The residents of the other one may be less concerned about that image, located as they are in the middle of the suburban mega-sprawl of Long Island, about a 45-minute trip on the commuter train from Penn Station – that’s 30 miles, theoretically a 40-minute drive but closer to an hour and a half in heavy traffic.