A listener named Krauty asked a question about last week’s episode that other people have asked too: How is the phrase “dilly dally” related to the word “dilly”?
We talked about “dillydally” last year in a podcast about reduplication. Bonnie Mills, who wrote that segment, said that “dillydally” started with the word “dally,” which means “delay.” Then, people used redupilication, repeating words or parts of words to make new forms, to turn it into “dillydally.” “Stop dillydallying” means something like “stop wasting time,” “stop delaying,” or “stop messing around.”
So it seems that “dillydally” isn’t related to the “carriage” or “coach” meaning of the word “dilly.” Instead, it comes from “dally,” and the ad agency that came up with “dilly dilly” was on to something—“dilly” is just fun to say, so it showed up when people applied reduplication to “dally.” Other words formed from reduplication include “shilly-shally” and “mumbo jumbo.”
I was curious which came first: “dilly dilly” or “dillydally”—and it seems to be “dillydally.” It goes all the way back to 1741. Even after further searching beyond last week’s episode, the oldest instance I could find of “dilly dilly” was a nursery rhyme that likely originated around 1830. That nursery rhyme has four “dillys” in a row in each stanza. Here’s how it begins:
Oh, what have you got for dinner, Mrs. Bond?
There’s beef in the larder, and ducks in the pond;
Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed,
For you must be stuffed and my customers filled!
Again, at first it seems like “dilly” is just fun to say, or it could mean something like “hurry up,” but Etymology Online says that “dilly” is also a nursery word for “duck,” so it seems most likely that Mrs. Bond or her companion are calling the ducks to come and be killed.
One caveat about the dates is that the nursery rhyme could have been passed down orally for a long time before it was written down, so the 1830 date could be misleading.
So that’s the best answer I could find. It doesn’t look like “dillydally” and “dilly” the carriage or “dilly dilly” the interjection are related, and it looks like “dillydally” came first.
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Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”