The term Richard Snary is an alteration, with humorous substitution of Richard for the pet-form Dick, of Dick Snary, itself a humorous remodelling of dictionary.
These terms are first recorded in Apollo shrouing composed for the schollars of the free-schoole of Hadleigh in Suffolke. And acted by them on Shrouetuesday, being the sixt of February, 1626, by William Hawkins (died 1637):
– I had rather tye thee to one of our schoole posts, or hang our great dicsnary at thy heele, for a clogge to keepe thee from gadding to play.
– Talke not to me of Dick snary, nor Richard-snary; I care not how little I come neare them.
In this text, both the spelling dicsnary and the term Dick Snary probably reflect a trisyllabic pronunciation of dictionary.
A variant form had been used in 1621 by the English poet John Taylor (1578-1653) in Et Careo, I want. About the word Primogeniter, the author wrote in a note:
In my English Latine Richard Swary, I finde or coynd this worthy word.
The pun was long popular. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (2nd edition, 1788), by the English antiquary and lexicographer Francis Grose (1731-91), contains:
Richard Snary. A dictionary. A country lad, having been reproved for calling persons by their Christian names, being sent by his master to borrow a dictionary, thought to shew his breeding by asking for a Richard Snary.
It was probably to Grose’s dictionary that the American novelist Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) referred in Red Harvest (1929):
I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.
The spelling dicksnary, reflecting the trisyllabic pronunciation of dictionary, is found for example in Dialect of the Bilston Folk, published in The Shrewsbury Chronicle (Shropshire) of 28th November 1845:
Some of the better apparelled, who affect a superior style, use words which they please to term ‘dicksnary words,’ such as ‘easement, convinciated, abstimonious, timothy’ (for timid).
This spelling was used as late as 1905 in The Devon and Exeter Gazette of 5th May. The column titled The Talk at Uncle Tom Cobleigh’s Club published a letter which thus begins, “You don’t knaw me, tho I’ve a bin wan ov yore “Constan Rayders” ever zince you started yore Club”, and in which the correspondent writes of “a ole dicksnary” that someone “wiz raydin”.