Dildo: Etymology Unknown

There are only a few words left in the English language that evade history as well as the word ‘dildo’. ‘Mushroom’ and ‘haddock’ are other slippery etymological examples. But the history of the word ‘dildo’ is actually pretty interesting, to me at least because of my background in linguistics. It’s a word that seems out-of-place somehow; it certainly doesn’t sound naturally English and it’s history is a bit of a mystery. There are however some really interesting clues, and that’s what we’re going to look at in this blog post.

The Earliest Literary Use of Dildo

Thomas Nashe was a contemporary of Shakespeare who, in 1593, wrote a poem called “The Choise of Valentines or the Merie Ballad of Nash, his Dildo” dedicated to the Earl of Southampton (my hometown, by the way). The Choise of Valentine’s is an erotic story that relates the visit of a young man, Tomalin, to a brothel to see his girlfriend, Frankie. He pays her ten gold pieces for sex but finds that, as soon as she lifts her skirt, he loses his erection and is unable to perform for her. Eventually, she is able to make him erect again and they have sex, but he climaxes too soon leaving her to satisfy herself with the titular dildo. To be honest, it’s not a very good poem and it’s only noted because it uses the word dildo.

So 1593 has the first written record of this word, but what exactly does that tell us? Amongst other things, it tells us that the word ‘dildo’ must have been in circulation long before Nashe committed it to parchment. He didn’t invent the word, otherwise his audience wouldn’t have understood it; he was speaking to an audience who were already familiar with the word. But how did they know it? How old was it?

This is a dory. The dildos are where the oars would go. Look closely.

There is some speculation about this, and some surprisingly heated debate. One nautical suggestion notes that the oar-fixings on a particular kind of boat, a ‘dory’, are called ‘dildos’, and they’re undeniably phallic in shape. Some have posited that this usage is where we get the present word from, but the first record of this use comes from 1719, long after the initial use of the word ‘dildo’ itself. Therefore, it seems safe to say that the phallic oar mountings on a dory come from the ‘dildo’ as we know it, rather than the other way around.

Etymology

To look for the ancient predecessor of the word dildo, we might think it would be useful to look at Ancient Greek or Latin, the languages to which we usually look when we study etymology. But no, in this case even these ancient tongues seem to shed no light. The Ancient Greeks tended to refer to these objects with the word ‘olisbos’ or ‘godemiche’, which can’t be the word from which we get ‘dildo’. The Latin word ‘dilatare’, which means ‘to open wide’ (from which we get ‘dilate’) has been put forward as the root of the word dildo, but it seems very unlikely.

Another school of thought notes that the Italian word for delight, ‘diletto’, sounds much like dildo and they posit this as the root for ‘dildo’. Again, it seems like wishful thinking; though the two words are similar it can be reasonably argued that the similarity is purely formal and not really meaningful.

Perhaps the most interesting lead comes from Ancient India, a culture that was very familiar with sexual objects and sexuality on the whole. The 2000 year old Kama Sutra uses the Hindi term ‘darshildo’ for dildo, a term that seems to close to the modern pronunciation to be coincidence.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any better clues? I’d love to hear them!

2 thoughts on “Dildo: Etymology Unknown

  1. Surely dildo is simply a shortening of ‘dill doll’. Dill is widely recorded as being slang for penis for many hundreds of years, although not in common use today… so a dill doll would be a toy penis, just as a doll is a toy person. ‘dill doll’ is still sometimes used as an alternate version of dildo.

    Perhaps this could also explain the true origin of ‘dilly dally’ – to waste time playing with a dill doll?

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