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Dildo: Back and Forth on a Cold Spoor of an Obscenity

By Anatoly Liberman

I began investigating the origin of dildo, because I happen to know the Russian word dylda “lanky youth,” a noun that is somewhat humorous, but not obscene. Dylda is “strictly Russian”: it has no cognates in any other Slavic or Baltic language. Therefore, borrowing in either direction (from English into Russian or from Russian into English) seems unlikely. If dildo were part of common European slang, (as I suspect Engl. troll/Norwegian Drolen “devil,” with numerous similar words occurring in Germanic, Romance, and Slavic, were), it would probably have turned up somewhere between Russia and England. The Russian word was first recorded in a dictionary only in 1847. Its lost prehistory may have been long, but the date is too late for taking over dildo, which had its heyday in England in the 17th century (no citations in the OED before 1593) and then disappeared from texts. However, it stayed in the underworld (to which Russians would have had no access), as the citations from 1785 and 1886 show. In our time, the word returned in force, but at the end of the 19th century it was remembered so little (if at all) that Murray included it in the OED despite the prudish attitude toward such vocabulary prevalent in his day. He must have been sure that no one would look for it in the dictionary. For the same reason, the editors left out the entry fuck, but had no qualms about the obsolete windfucker “kestrel” and “a term of opprobrium” and even mentioned fuckwind. The 1886 citation is especially interesting because it gives the names for the dildo in several languages, Italian diletto among them, and states that dildo is the English variant of it. But this etymology must be wrong, for diletto (that is, “pleasure; beloved,” a delightful, delectable thing) would have remained diletto in English, as can be seen from stiletto, or yielded *dilto (an asterisk means that such a form does not exist).

It may cause surprise to find an old word like dildo with the meaning current nowadays. Yet such is the case here. Dildo was also used as part of refrains: dildo-lee, dildo-doe, and dildo-dill. In The Winter’s Tale a servant praises a balladeer: “…he has the prettiest love-songs for maids: so without bawdry, which is strange; with such delicate burthens of dildos and fadings, ‘jump her and thump her;’ and where some stretch-mouthed rascal would, as it were, mean mischief and break a foul gap into the matter, he makes the maid answer,’ Whoop, do me no harm, good man;’ puts him off, slights with “whoop, do me no harm, good man.’” (Burthen, or burden, means “refrain”; fading was the name of a dance, apparently Irish, and with a fading occurred as the refrain of a popular song of an indecent character.) We will reserve judgment about the propriety of the song, the modesty of dildos and fadings (“without bawdry”), and the innocent character of the “burthen” jump her and thump her. Dildo seems to be dil-do, with dil meaning swive, as Shakespeare would have put it, and what is now expressed with the help of the F-word. Or the syllable dil is followed by another syllable beginning with d and a vowel (o) added. The “etymological” meaning of the English F-word is “move back and forth,” and dil seems to have meant the same. Dalliance and dilly-dally come from French, but the original home of dally is Germanic (archaic German dahlen means “dilly-dally”). In words of this type, vowels vary freely (thus the German for fuck is ficken). Therefore, dilly– in dilly-dally is not a meaningless syllable appended to –dally, as some etymologists think, but another Germanic word, a twin of dally, the one we see in dil-do. The original meaning of both must have been “move back and forth.” Is the obsolete cant word dell (once written dill) “wench; whore” akin to dill– in dilly? The sound group dil, along with till-, suggests something frivolous. It alludes to meandering and useless work. At the time of dildos and fadings there was an exclamation tilly-vally “nonsense, fiddlesticks.” Luther used the compound tillens-tellens with the sense “dilly-dallying.” In England, the hot-dumpling sellers’ cry was: “Diddle, diddle, dumpling,” memorable from Mother Goose: “Diddle, diddle dumpling, my son John,/ Went to bed with his trousers on;/ One shoe off, and one shoe on,/ Diddle, diddle dumpling, my son John.” From a phonetic point of view, diddle is not too far from dildo—a similar combination of sounds denoting moving about and looking alive.

The Russian verb hardly has anything to do with its Germanic partial look-alikes, but the sound symbolic association that brought them to life may have been the same. Russian (partly dialectal) dyl(d)– and dol(d)– refer to repetitive actions that command no respect, for instance, dyldit’ “behave foolishly; loaf” and doldonit’ “say the same thing again and again in a boring way” (the boldface letters show the place of stress). Dylda appears originally to have been the name applied to a loafer or uncouth youngster, hobbledehoy.) It is not related to Engl. dildo, as Engl. dally is to German dahlen, but the impulse that resulted in coining the two words may have been similar. In etymology, coincidence proves nothing, but it should not be dismissed as unworthy of notice. The origin of the words discussed above is still obscure (and will, I suppose, remain such for all eternity), but who knows? Perhaps a dylda with a dildo will show the way.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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