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What’s in a name

by Brian Clarey

They found Andrew Koenig in a Canadian park, about two weeks after he’d killed himself.

It’s a tragedy all around: a young man, 41, from a successful family who showed early promise and then lost his way.

Koenig was best known for his turn as Richard Stabone on the 1980s sitcom “Growing Pains,” the show that made a star out of Kirk Cameron, captured in excruciating fashion the awkward teen years of actor Jeremy Miller and showed the world that pretty much everybody can do an impression of Alan Thicke.

“Gee, Maggie, I think Mike’s got a point here.” Slur it nasally while wobbling your head a little bit and you got it.

“Growing Pains” was also the last time a character in mainstream entertainment had such a filthy name.

Richard Stabone’s nickname, “Boner,” was not played strictly for laughs, though the character himself was a classic stooge to Cameron’s comic foil. But for a certain demographic who watched the show when it originally aired between 1985 and 1992, the merest mention of Mike Seaver’s best friend caused muffled snorts and chuckles. Because his name was Boner.

The history of television sitcomery is addled with characters like this, whose names are thinly veiled innuendo or obscure slang for human body parts.

Take, for example, the dozen or so guys on old TV shows named Dick: Dick Tracy, Dick Grayson (“Batman), Dick Loudon (”Newhart”), the eponymous Dick van Dyke…. Do you mean to tell me that the word “dick” did not have the same slang connotations in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s as it does today? Of course not — though I suppose it’s possible that the slang definition is more common today.

Frankly, though, I think even guys like Dick Clark, Dick Cavett and Dick Smothers said their names with a little bit of a smirk. And Rod Serling? C’mon.

Don’t even get me started on Mr. French, from “Family Affair.” But back to the Dicks, which were prevalent not only on television but in popular American culture almost from the beginning. Everybody remembers Moby Dick, which was first published in 1851 with nary a chuckle, even though it was about a huge white whale. Dick and Jane primers, which first came out in the 1930s, were considered appropriate for children. Dick Nixon was the 37 th president of the United States. Maybe that’s a bad example.

According to the Straight Dope website, “Dick” as a nickname predates “dick” as slang for male genitalia by 600 years or so, making its first written appearance around 1220. In the ensuing centuries, the work “dick” has come to describe cheese, aprons, mounds of dirt, dictionaries and private detectives.

People didn’t start using it as a euphemism for male genitalia — in print, anyway — until around 1890.

Which still leaves us with an awful lot of unexplained Dicks. My take is that the preponderance of Dicks in television and movies was a subversive way for network executives to mess with Middle America.

Network executive No. 1 [chomping on big cigar]: “So here’s the show: We got a father, a mother, a couple of kids. I suppose he has some job in an office somewhere. Guy needs a name. Quick, what’s the biggest show on television right now?” Network Suit No. 2 [chomping a slightly smaller cigar]: “That’s ‘The Dick van Dyke Show.’” Network Executive No. 1: “Dick! I love when they do that. Dick it is!” Network Executive No, 2: “Genius! Dick! They’ll eat it up in the Midwest!” Network Executive No. 1: “Ha! That’s what she said!” And so it went, right up until the time the slang term became mainstream, which I suppose was back around 1980.

Which brings us back to Richard Stabone. Or Boner, if you prefer. According to the online etymology dick, “boner” became slang for a stupid error and gained popularity after baseball player Fred Merkle earned the nickname “Bonehead” in 1908, when as a New York Giant he forgot to tag second base after Al Bridwell hit what should have been a game-winning single against the Chicago Cubs. Merkle was tagged out in the Giants clubhouse as fans stormed the field; there was no chance for extra-inning play and both ballclubs finished the season with one of the only ties in Major League history — problematic because the teams were tied for first place. The Cubs won the playoff, and the play would forever be known as “Merkle’s Boner.”

As a footnote, the Cubs went on to win the 1908 World Series — the last one they ever took.

At any rate, I can’t see how it was possible that the name “Boner” slipped past the network censors in the relatively modern year of 1985, when “Growing Pains” first got on the air.

The word “boner” didn’t take on its other slang meaning until around 1950, plenty of time for the term to gain traction even among the most sheltered of televisions types.

So that places Richard Stabone firmly — and, I believe, lastly — in a long line of television characters with inappropriate names.

So thanks for the chuckles, Andrew Koenig. Hopefully you’ve found something to laugh about, wherever you are. And maybe when Jerry Mathers dies, we’ll explore this territory again.

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