A dilly is a coach or carriage, but it's not related to the phrase "dilly dilly." A "dilly dilly" is more like a cheer or a command, and it gained popularity when it was used in a 2017 beer commercial.
Today we’re going to explore an important topic: what does the phrase “dilly dilly” mean?
You may have heard this on TV, in an app, or spoken by your friends. If so, you may have wondered (just like me) whether “dilly” is a real word.
The answer is yes—and no.
“Dilly” is an obsolete term for a horse-drawn carriage—one that was available for hire. Imagine “Pride-and-Prejudice”-era debutantes stepping out of a carriage on their way to a ball. They might have been riding in a dilly. Or picture a stagecoach flying across the Wild West, paying passengers on board, and a coachman astride the cab. They too were riding on a dilly.
This word came into use in the 1700s. Its meaning was extended over time to include carts, trucks, and, even railway engines. But as the use of horses-drawn carriages died away, so did this word.
Fast-forward to 2017.
Wieden+Kennedy, the ad agency for Anheuser-Busch, was working on a campaign for the 2017 NFL season. They came up with the idea of a “Game of Thrones”–like world in which a laconic king cries out “dilly dilly” when his subjects bring him beer.
The ad debuted in August 2017, and the phrase spread like wildfire across pop culture. Soon, there were “dilly dilly” T-shirts, hats, mugs … you name it. The phrase was even used by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in a game against the Tennessee Titans. He called an audible at the line of scrimmage—that means he told his teammates at the last second he was changing the play. The name of the surprise play? Dilly dilly.
The executives who created this campaign admit that the phrase doesn’t mean much, other than conveying a rough sense of “cheers,” or “hear hear.” They chose it simply because it made them laugh.
And when they chose it, they probably didn’t realize it was an epizeuxis.
No—I didn’t just sneeze—I said “epizeuxis.” That’s a literary device in which a word or phrase is repeated in quick succession. It can be used for emphasis, to generate emotion, or to create a certain cadence.
A literary example of epizeuxis is from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” when the antagonist Kurtz cries out “the horror, the horror.”
A musical example is Maroon 5’s song “I Don’t Want to Know”:
I don’t want to know, know, know, know
Who’s taking you home, home, home, home
And loving you so, so, so, so
The way I used to love you.
And a strangely familiar example can be found in an 1881 book of nursery rhymes:
Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green,
When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen:
Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?
‘Twas mine own heart, dilly dilly, that told me so.
In sum, “dilly” was a real word, but the phrase “dilly dilly” has no relation to it. If you want, use it for fun, use it to laugh, and don’t think much more about it.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.