By Anatoly Liberman
Dandy first made its appearance on the Scottish border and in the 1780’s became current in British slang. Its origin (most probably, dialectal) remains a mystery—a common thing with such words. Etymologists have grudgingly resigned themselves to the idea that dandy goes back to the pet name of Andrew. How Andrew became Dandy is also unclear (by attracting d from the middle?). But this is not our problem. Pet names behave erratically. Elizabeth, Elspeth, Betsy, and Beth make sense, but Bill (= Will) for William? Peggy for Margaret? In any case, Dandy is a recorded short name for Andrew (and incidentally, for Alexander). Trying to discover why Andrew was chosen to represent London overdressed young men (assuming that such a thing happened several hundred years ago) would be a waste of time. This mythic character is a member of the club to which Sam Hill, Smart Aleck, and Jack Sprat (a.k.a. Jack Prat) belong; its whereabouts are lost.
Then there are merry-andrew “buffoon” and jack-a-dandy “a merry foppish fellow” (the latter predates dandy by about a century). The OED is noncommittal with regard to the etymology of dandy but admits a possible connection between it and jack-a-dandy. Here are two quotations in addition to what the OED gives (the second obviously echoes the first or rather is part of a formulaic pattern): “Smart she is and handy, O, /Sweet as sugar candy, O, / Fresh and gay/ As flow’rs in May, / And I’m her Jack-a-dandy, O” (no date given); “My love is blithe and bucksome [sic] / And sweet and fine as can be; / fresh and gay as the flowers in May, / And looks like Jack-a-dandy” (1671). In the 1780s many songs having almost the same refrain were in vogue, with Dandy, O substituting for Jack-o-dandy, O.
We will ignore a few fanciful suggestions (such as the attempt to trace dandy to the name of an ancient tribe, and a few others), for two reasonable derivations have been proposed. One centers around dandiprat “dwarf; urchin; a small coin” (an early 16th-century word). Since its origin is also unknown, no help can be expected from these quarters. But it may be observed that the time gap is significant: if dandy had been “abstracted” from dandiprat, it would probably have surfaced much earlier. Also, dandy does not seem to have been used to mock the ostentatious (and indeed often ridiculously dressed) “swells”: when dandies attracted public notice, they became the object of good-humored, even if vulgar, curiosity and were more often gaped at than vilified. Later, whatever opprobrium might have been associated with them disappeared. Byron was a “dandy.” Around 1830 people spoke about “Winchester gentlemen, Harrow dandies, and Eton bucks” (bucks must have had more than one meaning). Pushkin’s aristocratic Evgeny Onegin was “dressed like a London dandy” (those interested in details should consult Nabokov’s commentary to chapter I of the novel). By contrast, dandiprat never had positive connotations. The second “school of thought” looks for the homeland of dandy in France, even though French lexicographers unanimously state that dandy is an import from England. French dandin means “ninny”; hence the immortal cuckold George Dandin. The verb dandiner has been glossed variously as “to twist one’s body about; have a rolling gait, waddle; occupy oneself with trifles.” Even the earliest dandies were not ninnies, though they did comport themselves in a way that aroused amusement. Apparently, dandy cannot be traced to French dandin.
At this juncture, we could have left our word in its etymological wilderness, but for a certain complication. Dandy “fop” is not an isolated word in English. We find a dandy of punch (that is, a small glass; predominantly Irish), dandy “a vessel rigged as a sloop and having also a jigger mast,” and dandy, a term used as the first element in the names of various contrivances. Whether the boat, the glass, and the contrivances are “neat” is open to doubt. In a local book, the devil’s hounds were called dandy dogs (!). A regional dictionary gives dandy “hand.” And then, whatever the origin of dandiprat, its “prat” must have been dandy. Looking at the words close to dandy in a dictionary, we come across dander “an outburst of anger,” as in get one’s dander up; dander “stroll, saunter,” dander “the ferment (of molasses)” and one more dander “a piece of slag”; dandruff, and dandle “to rock a child” (with which we may, if we wish, compare dangle). In our texts, none of those words predates 1500 (while some were attested much later), and surprisingly, the origin of all of them is unknown (in dandruff only -ruff admits of a convincing explanation). French dandin is also obscure.
While working on the history of English words, I ran into a few instances of what may perhaps be called common old European slang. One example is the family of mooch. The early cognates of this Germanic verb made their way into Italian and almost certainly into French (I will refrain from citing them, for they can be found in my etymological dictionary). Their protoform has a cognate in Old Irish. The puzzling look-alike is Latin muger “a cheat at dice,” which can hardly be related to Germanic-Celtic muk- ~ myk-. It seems that words with the root muk- and mug-, denoting darkness and clandestine dealings, have been current in Europe for at least two millennia. I suspect that a similar, though shorter, story can be told about the dand- words. Middle High German lyric poetry made tandaradei, an exclamation of joy, famous. It has been explained as a shout imitating a bird’s song. Do birds sing tandaradei? Engl. dandle resembles Italian dandolare “swing; toss; dally; loiter.” The OED observes about a possible cognate of a similar sounding German verb that “no word of this family is known in Old or Mid. Eng., and the sense is not so close to the English as in the Italian word.” Yet German tändeln means’ “dawdle, play, etc.”
We will probably never know the origin of dandy for sure, but if we venture into the prehistory of slang, we may risk the conjecture that when dand- words first invaded some West-European languages around 1500, they meant “active, mobile” or “quick, nimble” (is this where dandy “hand” came from? are dandy dogs quick dogs?). “Swing, shake” would be a natural extension of quickness, and the exclamation tandaredei would emerge as a natural expression of animal spirits. Fine and dandy is a tautological binomial like safe and sound; all that is quick and nimble is fine by definition. Jack-a-dandy certainly knew how to win a girl’s heart. At some time dandy “fop” may have had amorous overtones. French dandiner “to twist one’s body” fits the picture well (compare “swing, toss”). Twisting in coils found no favor with the French: it must have struck them as idiotic. Hence dandin, a back formation from the verb? If this is how dandy acquired its meaning, it has nothing to do with Andrew, so that the association between them is late. The origin of dander, in all its manifestations, deserves a special look.
Can my reconstruction of the origin of dandy be taken seriously? Slang travels light from land to land. An expressive word can conquer half of Europe in a matter of a few years; consider our modern cool. In the past, the process was not so quick. Anyway, if we accept the etymology proposed here as a working hypothesis, we won’t be poorer than before, for at the outset we had nothing.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”