Derrick, From Gothic King to Cranes and Oil Rigs

By Maeve Maddox

The family name Derrick derives from the personal name commonly spelled Derek, which is a shortening of the Germanic name Theodoric, “ruler of the people.” Theodoric the Great (454-526), king of the Ostrogoths and eventual de facto ruler of Italy, probably inspired a great many European namesakes.

Numerous versions of the name exist, including Darrick, Derrik, Diederick, Diederik, Dieter, and Dirk.

The name existed in England as Deoric and Deodric during Anglo-Saxon times, but fell out of favor during the medieval period. It was reintroduced into the British Isles from the Low Countries in the 15th century.

One bearer of the name was Thomas Derrick, an Englishman who lived during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Convicted of rape and sentenced to death, Derrick was pardoned by the second Earl of Essex on condition that he serve as hangman at Tyburn, the principal execution location for criminals, traitors and religious dissenters.

Derrick is said to have executed more than 3,000 people. Ironically, his pardoner, the Earl of Essex, was one of them, although not at Tyburn. Because of his noble blood, Essex was beheaded on Tower Green in the Tower of London, the last person, by the way, to be executed there. Perhaps because most of his experience was with hangings at Tyburn, Derrick had to swing the axe three times before finishing the job on the earl.

Such was Derrick’s professional fame that his name became generic for hangman. His name survives as a common noun in modern English, but with a different meaning.

When Thomas Derrick took up his duties at Tyburn, hangings were carried out with a rope passed over a beam. He modernized the process by adding a topping lift and pulleys to the beam to make it easier to lift and lower the condemned person. The new device was soon known as a Derrick.

The word for a device invented to make it easier to lift and lower bodies has come to mean “a contrivance for hoisting or moving heavy weights.” The following examples illustrate the Elizabethan hangman’s legacy in modern usage:

As we left Woodall’s place, old oil derricks stretched up from platforms on the water around the Highway 42 bridge. 

Derricks at other ports for the use of sea-going ships were completed or partially completed when stopped by the armistice.

Cranes and derricks that are located at a shipbuilding/shipyard facility and are shore-based (e.g., shop cranes, yard cranes) do not require certification.

Derricks and masts are vital structural fixtures to a drilling operation. 

Construction derricks prick the skyline of every city.

The common noun derrick is an eponym.

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2 Responses to “Derrick, From Gothic King to Cranes and Oil Rigs”

  • Betula

    I am still learning English language and Daily Writing Tips is a great resource for me. As I read today’s daily writing tip, I noticed that in the sentence “Because of his noble blood, Essex was beheaded …” (6th paragraph), the word “Essex” sounded to me as if Essex was a human name. I know that Essex is one of the counties in England. I wonder if it is also used as a male name or there is an error here and it should be written as “the Earl of Essex.”
    Thank you

  • Maeve

    Betula,
    I just noticed your question. Sorry to be so long about it.

    Essex is a county and yes, the man mentioned in this post was Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex. It is quite common, however, to refer to him as “Essex” once he has been identified.

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