Q: I came across the word “dillies” the other day (I can’t remember where!) and it reminded me that when I was a child in England many years ago, “dilly” was the name for a female duck. I haven’t heard it since, and strangely enough, cannot find “dilly = duck” on the internet! Is this a usage that has entirely disappeared?
A: In the days when people kept domestic ducks, the word “dilly” was more common than it is today. In modern English, it exists only as a colloquial or dialectal usage, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The word began as a call to ducks, the OED says, and consequently “dilly” (along with “dilly-duck”) evolved into “a nursery name for a duck.”
The earliest duck-call example we’ve found appeared in a popular music-hall song first performed in the mid-18th century. The lyrics to the song, originally entitled “Mrs. Bond,” later became a nursery rhyme.
The comic song is about a cook who needs “a duckling or two” for her customers’ dinner. She instructs a servant to call the ducks by crying “Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed,” but when he fails to entice them Mrs. Bond goes to the pond and calls them herself.
The song was introduced in performances of Samuel Foote’s two-act farce The Mayor of Garret (1763), according to The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (2nd ed., 1997), by Iona and Peter Opie. The song doesn’t appear in the published text of the play, but the Opies say it was immediately printed by rival London music publishers.
The song’s oft-repeated refrain is “Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed, / For you must be stuffed and my customers filled!”
A nursery-rhyme version of the song was first published in 1797 in Samuel Arnold’s Juvenile Amusements, according to the Opies, and subsequently appeared in several 19th-century collections of children’s poetry (the wording often varied).
The OED suggests that the evolution of “dilly” from a duck call to the name for a duck was inspired by the nursery rhyme.
But in the meantime, among adults the saying “dilly, dilly, come and be [or “to be”] killed” became a catch-phrase symbolizing a sweet enticement used to lure an unsuspecting victim. It was used this way in early 19th-century political journalism—first in Britain, then in the US and Australia.
For example, a member of Parliament, Robert Thornton, used the catch-phrase in the House of Commons on June 16, 1813, in arguing against an invitation to the East India Company to open its ports to wider trade. He likened the resolution to “the line in Mrs. Bond’s song—’Dilly Dilly Wagtail, come to be killed.’ ”
His remarks were reported on June 17, 1813, in at least two British newspapers, the London Star and the London Chronicle, though the wording differed. A report also appeared in July 1813 in a British periodical, the Satirist: or, Monthly Meteor:
“Mr. R. Thornton, in one of the debates on the East India question, wittily observed, that the invitation to the Company to open their trade reminded him of the child’s song,—’Dilly, Dilly, come and be killed.’ ”
In social commentary, too, the duck call was used to symbolize a lure to the unwary.
An article about “cannibalism” among different elements of society was published in Britain and the US in 1828. The author mentions one class of “cannibals” that “must be nameless” (probably the clergy), who “persuade their prey, like ‘dilly dilly duck,’ ‘to come and be killed’ for the good of his own soul.” The unsigned article was printed in the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (London, July 1828) and the Museum of Foreign Literature and Science (Philadelphia and New York, September 1828).
The OED’s citations for “dilly”—both as a duck call and as a name for a duck—aren’t fully updated and don’t begin until 1831, with an example of Mrs. Bond’s duck call in the nursery rhyme.
But Oxford does have the earliest example we’ve seen for “dilly” used to mean a duck. It’s from a comic poem first published in 1838, in which the eels in Mrs. Bond’s pond eat her baby ducklings.
We’ll expand the OED citation for context: “The tenants of that Eely Place / Had found the way to Pick a dilly.” (From “The Drowning Ducks” by Thomas Hood, with puns on the London street names Ely Place and Piccadilly.)
Was a “dilly” always a female duck, the counterpart to the “drake”? The OED doesn’t say, but in 19th-century British literature that’s generally the case.
In The Boy’s Book of Modern Travel and Adventure (1863), Merideth Johnes uses “her” in referring to a “poor dilly-duck.” R. D. Blackmore’s novel Mary Anerley (first serialized in 1879) has a passage in which “coy lady ducks” are later referred to as “tame dilly-ducks.” And Summer in Broadland (1889), a travel book by Henry Montagu Doughty, uses “she” and “her” in reference to an inquisitive “dilly duck.”
So why was “dilly” used as a duck call in the first place? That’s a good question, and we don’t have a clue. The word certainly doesn’t sound like the quacking of a duck.
What’s more, other meanings of “dilly” aren’t related. The adjective “dilly” has been used to mean stupid or foolish, but only since the 1870s and mostly in Australia. In American slang “dilly” has meant delightful or delicious since the early 1900s—a use that inspired the noun use (“it’s a dilly”). The source there is the first syllable of “delightful” and “delicious,” the OED says.
Another similar sounding term, “dilly dally,” is also unrelated, as far as we know. It was recorded in noun form in the 1500s and as a verb in the 1700s. But the OED says it’s probably a repeating variant (“a reduplication with vowel variation”) of the verb “dally” (circa 1300), along the lines of “shilly shally,” “zig-zag,” and other such phrases.
Also unrelated are some uses of “dilly” in nursery rhymes. We’ve found examples dating from 1606 of chants like “fa-la-la lantido dilly,” “trangidowne dilly,” “lankey down dilly,” “daffy-down dilly” (an expansion of “daffodil”), and others.
Perhaps the most familiar of these is an anonymous 17th-century English song that begins, “Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green, / When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen.” (Early versions used “diddle” instead of “dilly.”)
But getting back to your question about “dilly” in the barnyard, apparently there’s no logic in the words people use to call domestic animals. Such words are “chiefly monosyllabic and dissylabic” and are “generally repeated in groups of three,” according to one 19th-century observer, who added: “This language has but little in common with that used by the animals.”
The writer was H. Carrington Bolton, whose paper “The Language Used in Talking to Domestic Animals” appeared in the March and April 1897 issues of the American Anthropologist.
In a section entitled “Calls to Ducks,” Bolton says that “dilly, dilly” isn’t solely a British usage: “Dilly, dilly is also current in the United States; diddle is reported from Virginia, and widdy from North Carolina.”
It seems that what was true in the 19th century is no longer true now. The Dictionary of American Regional English, whose evidence dates largely from the 20th century, lists “diddle” and “widdy” as calls to ducks and other poultry. But alas, no “dilly.”