The Legal Beagle

Have you ever wondered how “Dick” became a nickname for Richard? Or how “Sally”came out of Sarah, or “Chuck” out of Charles?

We have to go back to the Middle Ages to answer this, but before we go on, a caveat. Space limitations necessitate that we overgeneralize because the history of how we came by our names is complicated. It differed from country to country, and was influenced by social class and gender. In Europe alone, there were three kinds of names: Bynames, patronymics, and surnames.

But back to the Middle Ages. In those days, most people were referred to by either their occupation, such as ‘Taylor”or “Baker,” where they lived (“Wood” or “Marsh”) or a personal trait (such as “Little” or “Strong”).  There also weren’t that many first names yet. So many men were called Richard, for example, that people developed nicknames to identify one Richard from another. Richard was shortened to Rick, and given the English knack for rhyming, Rick became Dick.  Robert was shortened to Rob, and as a result of people playing with sounds and indulging in the trend of letter swapping, they came up with Bob. It’s the same way we got Will and Bill from William.

Some nicknames were born from how its proper name was pronounced at the time. As said in Middle English at the time, Charles was Chukken. Abbreviating Chukken lead to “Chuck.”

And what about Sarah and Sally? In the 11th and 12th centuries, and for reasons that escape us, people often substituted the letter R with an L, and for good measure, added a Y at the end. Sarah became Sala which became Sally. The same was true for Molly, a common nickname for Mary.

We can see that the English had a fondness for word play, and especially rhyme, though the term, “legal beagle” (used to describe a skillful and adroit attorney) certainly wasn’t around in the Middle Ages. It may not have been seen in use until December 24, 1921, when it appeared in a quote in the Implement & Tractor Trade Journal, “Imptorials,” The term really caught on around 1946 when it appeared in advertisements for Perry Mason crime novels.

This is contrary to one school of thought that it was the Peanuts comic strip character, Snoopy, who took on an attorney alter ego in a strip appearing on January 12, 1972. It was part of a storyline in which Peppermint Patty tried to eliminate the school’s dress code policy.

These days, linguists refer to something like “legal beagle” as a rhyming reduplication (like teeny-weenymumbo jumbo, and wishy-washy). Naturally, we like “legal beagle” for its dog breed reference.  We are always keen to learn about term and colloquial expressions that refer to dogs, and if you are too, you might like the following post, “The Bulldog Edition:”

The Bulldog Edition

Image: Beagle by monkeybusinessimages


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