The Grammarphobia Blog

Shall we shilly-shally?

Q: Do you know the origins of “shilly-shally”?

A: Yes. No shilly-shallying from us!

The phrase (which can be used as a verb, an adjective, an adverb, or a noun) refers to indecision, hesitation, vacillation, or procrastination.

An early version of the expression entered English in the 17th century as part of the verbal phrase “to stand shall I, shall I” (meaning to vacillate). Other early versions were “to go shill-I shall-I” and “to stand at shilly-shally.”

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the verbal phrase is from a 1674 medical text that refers to drugs “that will not stand shall I? shall I? but will fall to work on the Disease presently.”

The shorter verbal phrase “to shilly-shally” showed up in the late 18th century, according to citations in the OED. The first example is from Fanny Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia: “So I suppose he’ll shilly shally till somebody else will cry snap, and take her.”

The adverb, noun, and adjective all showed up in the 18th century, according to published references in the OED. Here are a few examples that we found interesting (they’re not the earliest ones in the dictionary).

Thomas Jefferson uses the phrase adjectivally in this 1792 quotation from his writings: “I had heard him say that this constitution was a shilly-shally thing, of mere milk and water, which would not last.”

Robert Browning uses it adverbially in his 1873 poem Red Cotton Night-Cap Country, when he refers to someone “At shilly-shally, may he knock or no / At his own door in his own house and home.”

And here’s an 1876 example of the noun from George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda: “What I wished to point out to you was, that there can be no shilly-shally now.”

A final note: At around the same time the verb “shall” gave us “shilly-shally,” the verb “dally” gave us “dilly-dally” and the adjective “washy” (water-logged) gave us “wishy-washy.” A bit earlier, the verb “will” and the now-obsolete verb “nill” (to be unwilling) gave us “willy-nilly.”

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