Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Shilly Shally

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 10, 2015

If someone is shilly shallying, they are acting irresolutely.   In other words, those who shilly shally can’t be pinned down one way or another to an action or a decision leaving others with no idea where that person stands.

The Glasgow Herald published a Letter To The Editor written by Alex C.M. MacNeill in March 4, 1977 where the author voiced his displeasure at the inaction of the political parties.  He took issue with the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal parties equally as the first (and only) sentence of his brief letter made clear.

The present attitude in Scotland to the shilly-shallying of the Labour, Conservative, and Liberal parties over devolution recalls to mind the saying attributed to one of the German conductors of the old Scottish Orchestra who was having trouble with a recalcitrant or incompetent brass-player:  “With your damn nonsense will I twice once put up.  But always?  Sometimes?  Never!”

In the October 16, 1942 edition of the Milwaukee Journal, Joseph Shechtman wrote about shilly shally and willy nilly.  According to him, these phrases came about as a corruption of how the real words were pronounced.  For those who asked, “Shall? Shall I?” that became shilly shally.

The Boston Evening Transcript used the expression as part of the title on an article that was published on July 28, 1915 in its recounting what Sheriff Kinkead had done just hours earlier in front of what the newspaper referred to as “plenty of witnesses.”  Yes, Sheriff Kinkead and his men settled a strike by appealing to the strikers sense of patriotism for the United States of America as many who were striking were foreigners who had come to America to find a better for themselves and their families.  The article was entitled, “Busting Through Shilly-Shally.”

Interesting Side Note:  The writer of this article stated that Mrs. Wendell Phillips of Boston (MA) invented the phrase shilly shally.

In Chapter 20 of a serialized story published in The Age newspaper on June 29, 1901 the word was used in this passage.

“Mr. Vickers, have you heard of Pyrotid?” inquired Christ, confidentially.

“Sir,” said Mr. Vickers with dignity, “I am not a betting man.”

“It is not the name of a horse, but of a singular mineral,” said Chris.  “It is worth four pounds a ton, and there are two hundred thousand tons of it on Drellincourt Farm.  I found that out by the aid of a little shilly-shallying; but I admit that I got my cue regarding its existence from Mellor, for, Mr. Vickers, in the profession to which I belong it is absolutely necessary for one to understand men.”

The Deseret News published an extended article on March 5, 1889 about U.S. President Harrison’s message which, it was believed, would please his party and not disappoint the opposition.  The President delivered his message the day before, and within a day, even the British press was complimentary in its comments about his message.

The “Tribune” this morning says the strong and patriotic appeal will go to the hearts and convictions of the American people and will produce results hereafter.  The “Times” finds nothing impressive in the President’s remarks.  It thinks the tone and manner commonplace.  The “World” regards it as the deliverance of a sincere and extremely clear-minded man, and says there will be no shilly-shally foreign policy.

In Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Chapter X of the serialized story “On The Church Steps” by Sarah C. Hallowell (1833 – 1914) was published.  The author used the expression in such a way as to indicate that it was an expression that people from every social class knew and used.

Hiram kept the watch faithfully till five that morning, when I too was stirring. One or two teams had passed, but no Shaker wagon rattling through the night. We breakfasted in the little room that overlooked the road. Outside, at the pump, a lounging hostler, who had been bribed to keep a sharp lookout for a Shaker wagon, whistled and waited too.

“Tell you what,” said Hiram, bolting a goodly rouleau of ham and eggs, “I’ve got an idee. You and me might shilly-shally here on this road all day, and what surety shall we hev’ that they hevn’t gone by the other road. Old gal said there was two?”

Thomas Jefferson (13 April 1743 – 4 July 1826) used this expression in a letter dated October 1792 where he discussed George Washington’s comments about transforming the American government into a monarch (which he did not support, but which was strongly considered as an option by more than the handful the President dismissed there might be).  He wrote of a dispute between General Schuyler (20 November 1733 – 18 November 1804) on one side of the table (who favored hereditary descent), and Charles Cotesworth “C. C.” Pinckney (25 February 1746 – 16 August 1825) and Thomas Jefferson on the other (who opposed hereditary descent).

I told him, that though the people were sound, there was a numerous sect who had monarchy in contemplation; that the Secretary of the Treasury was one of those; that I had heard him say that this Constitution was a shilly-shally thing, of mere milk and water, which could not last, and was only good as a step to something better.  That when we reflected, that he had endeavored in the convention, to make an English constitution out of it, and when failing in that, we saw all his measures tending to bring it to the same thing, it was natural for us to be jealous; and particularly, when we saw that these measures had established corruption in the Legislature, where there was a squadron devoted to the nod of the Treasury, doing whatever he had directed, and ready to do what he should direct.

The expression found its way into the book, “The Eagle and the Robin: An Apologue” translated from the original Aesop fable by H.G.L. Mag, and printed and sold by H. Hills in Black-fryars near the Waterside in 1709.

You are suppos’d to undermine
The foe, in some immense design.
A pen can bite you with a line;
There’s forty ways to give a sign,
Well, all on fire away he stalk’d
Till come to where the Eagle walk’d.
Bob did not shilly-shally go,
Nor said one word of friend or foe;
But flirting at him made a blow,
As game-cocks with their Gauntlets do.

The earliest version of the expression Idiomation found is in the comedic play, “The Committee, Or The Faithful Irishman” by Sir Robert Howard, and published in 1665.  English playwright and politician Robert Howard (January 1626 – 3 September 1698) was the son of Thomas Howard, First Earl of Berkshire, and his mother, Elizabeth, was the daughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Second Earl of Exeter.

His play was published (along with three others) in his book, “Four New Plays” although there are indications that the play had been performed long before it was finally published in 1665.  In fact, Pepys wrote about taking in a performance of “The Committee” on June 12, 1663, and other diaries mention the play being performed before an audience in 1662.

MRS. DAY:
Well, Mrs. Arabella, I hope you have considered enough by this time.  You  need not use so much consideration for your own good; you  may have your estate, and you may have your Abel; and you may be worse offered.  Abel, tell her your mind; ne’er stand, shilly-shally. Ruth, does she incline, or is she wilfull?

MRS. RUTH:
I was just about the point when your honor interrupted us.  one word in your ladyship’s ear.

ABEL:
You see, forsooth, that I am somebody, though you make nobody of me.  You see I can prevail.  Therefore pray say what I shall trust to; for I must not stand shilly-shally.

MRS. ARABELLA:
You are hasty sir.

Unable to find an earlier published version for shilly-shally, and given that it was used in Sir Robert Howard’s play published in 1665 (and performed earlier), it is reasonable to assume that it was a commonly used expression in England in the 1600s.  Idiomation therefore sets the date for this expression to at least 1600.

2 Responses to “Shilly Shally”

  1. […] Originally posted on Historically Speaking. […]

  2. You early mention “willy-nilly” in an aside; it’s worth noting that that “willy-nilly” pretty much works in Latin, as “voli, noli”. (As I’m sure you know, the “v” would be pronounced as a “w”, or rather “u”.)

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