Watching the movie about J. Edgar Hoover starring Leonardo DiCaprio, there was a scene between Hoover and his mother that spoke of a certain schoolmate of J. Edgar’s who had committed suicide years earlier. She asked her son if he knew why he was called “Daffy” and then revealed that it was short for daffodil. While it wasn’t stated outright, the implication was that a daffodil — or rather, a daffy — was a homosexual.
Back in 1935, it was understood that a daffodil was an effeminate young man in the vein of pansies and millies. In “Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang” the term with this definition is pegged to the 1920s. Interestingly enough, however, in this same dictionary, there’s an entry for daffy-down-dilly which refers to a dandy, and dates back to the mid-1900s according to Cassell’s. The “Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English” by John S. Farmer and W.E. Henley published in 1905 confirms the claim in Cassell’s dictionary.
American romance novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (4 July 1804 – 19 May 1864) published a novel in 1843 titled, “Little Daffydowndilly.” The story is about a little boy who only likes to do things that are agreeable to him, and dislikes work of any kind. His mother has indulged her son to this end, and when he finds himself old enough to attend school, he finds the schoolmaster to be unreasonable in his expectations and believes him to be overly stern. As the story unfolds, Little Daffydowndilly learns a lot about himself and his schoolmaster.
INTERESTING NOTE 1: Nathanial Hawthorne is better known as the author of “The Scarlet Letter.”
Two years earlier, playwright William Leman Rede (31 January 1802 – 3 April 1847) wrote, “Sixteen-String Jack: A Romantic Drama In Three Acts” where he used daffy-down-dilly in Act i, Scene 2. The scene begins with Bobby Buckhorse, the waiter at the “Cock and Magpie” and Nelly.
I’m here, my daffy-down-dilly.
Don’t down-dilly me! but take some daffy to the back parlour.
Back parlour’s served: I saw three brandy’s cold, one egg-hot, and a qartern with three outs, go in.
INTERESTING NOTE 2: “Sixteen-String Jack” was a play about English criminal and highwayman, John “Sixteen String Jack” Rann (1750 – 30 November 1774) who was known for his charm and quick wit. His attire was said to be overly showy.
It’s easy to see how a flashy dressing rogue such as John “Sixteen String Jack” Rann could be thought of as effeminate, even as he waylaid the countryside with his nefarious deeds.
Anglo-Irish satirist, essayist, political pamphleteer, poet, and cleric, Jonathan Swift (30 November 1667 – 19 October 1745) used daffy-down-dilly in his short story, “A Punning Letter to the Earl of Pembroke” published on June 13, 1709.
There is a published reference to daffy-down-dilly recorded in Mother Goose or rather, what was known then called Mother Hubberd, back in 1593.
Daffy-down-dilly is new come to town
With a yellow petticoat, and a green gown.
The term is what’s known as a sandwich word which are, by nature, generally naughty. That being said, calling a lawyer a daffy-down-dilly from 1483 onward was a serious accusation of double-dealing, and playing both ends against the middle for the lawyer’s own personal gain. In other words, it was a conflict of interest that the lawyer chose to work to his advantage.
Idiomation finds that while daffy-down-dilly has been an insult for a great many centuries, it evolved to mean an effeminate male by the late 1700s and early 1800s. This eventually evolved to mean a homosexual by the 1920s. Idiomation therefore pegs this to 1800 as well as to 1920 because one really doesn’t know where the line was drawn between being effeminate and being a homosexual in the late 1700s and early 1800s.