Dear Word Detective: I referred to someone as “dopey dilldock” the other day, and my wife said her mother used the same expression. Any ideas on the origin of this one? — Charles.
Oh what a tangled web we weave, when the odd sayings of our parents we perceive, or something like that. Tracking down “dopey dilldock” turned into an all-day endeavor for me.
I started with the assumption that “dopey dilldock” means “a stupid person,” which seems reasonable given the usual meaning of “dopey” (originally “appearing to be under the influence of dope” i.e., drugs). In searching online for the word “dilldock” (or “dildock”), I came across several references to a 1918 movie called “A Perfect 36,” starring Mabel Norman. Interestingly, in the film the actor Rod La Rocque played a character named “O.P. Dildock.” Hey, it rhymes with “dopey dilldock”! Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a plot synopsis, so whether La Rocque played a doofus remains a mystery.
Fortunately, this dead end was quickly superseded by a live hit in the form of a citation for an obscure newspaper comic strip of the 1930s called, bingo, “Dopey Dildock.” And when I say “obscure,” I mean “virtually unknown.” The only reason it hasn’t entirely disappeared down the memory hole is that it was an early effort by the cartoonist Gus Edson, who went on to create “Dondi,” an enormously (and inexplicably, in my opinion) popular strip about an Italian war orphan adopted by an American GI (who apparently never noticed that the kid’s eyes were just big black dots).
But while Edson’s later efforts were highly successful, it seems unlikely that “Dopey Dildock” could have become a popular catchphrase based on an obscure 1930s comic strip. Indeed, Edson obviously chose that name for the strip because the phrase “Dopey Dildock” was already popular, and had been for decades.
“Dopey Dildock” dates back to at least the first years of the 20th century and possibly earlier. There are various theories about the phrase, but the most plausible, to me, appeared in an article in the journal American Speech in 1981. Etymologist Henry Stern suggested that “dildock” might be rooted in the German dialect word “dildap” or “diltap,” meaning “a silly, foolish, inept person” (the “dil” coming from the same root that gave us the English “dull”). Stern also ventured that the term arrived in the US with German immigrants, which would explain why it is unknown in England but apparently was common at one time in areas of the US with a strong German heritage.
In any case, the alliterative (and slightly redundant) form “dopey dildock” was evidently still popular in the US in the 1950s, and “dildock” is still seen used as an insult on the internet.