Dear Word Detective: I recently was trying to find the origin of the term “dolly,” as in a cart with wheels. I found your website by accident. I cannot put together a “doll” and the “dolly” as in your old, old posting. I have a gentleman’s bet with the owner of a bakery on the origin and I would really appreciate it if you could take another stab at the origin and/or maybe explain differently how a “doll” and a cart with wheels could be connected in the 16th century. — Karita.
OK, I’ll give it another shot. Perhaps with a wooden bullet, like the one Jason used on Franklin, the psycho vampire on True Blood. As Russell Edgington (the vampire king of Mississippi and my absolute fave) said in a slightly different context, who knew? By the way, the column of mine you stumbled across was from 1998, which makes it fairly old, but not really “old, old.” That makes it sound like you found it on the wall of a cave in southern France.
Before we begin, however, a word of caution is in order. It is often very difficult, and frequently simply impossible, to definitively trace the “why” behind figurative uses of words. There isn’t always a straight line of logic to be discovered, because the English language as we see it today is the product of a committee with millions of members over the course of many centuries. With no one in charge, to boot. The best guesses we can make are thus often maddeningly vague, and “dolly” is one such case.
As I said, ahem, way back when, the whole story starts with the word “doll,” which arose in the mid-16th century as a shortened “pet” or familiar form of “Dorothy.” The substitution of “l” for the “r” in Dorothy was not, at the time, as weird as it seems today. The same pattern gave us “Hal” from “Harold,” “Sally” from “Sarah,” and several other common names.
“Doll” and “Dolly,” in addition to being “pet” names for women, soon came to be applied as generic terms to pet animals, toy “dolls,” and lower-class women, including servants and prostitutes. “Dolly” was also used as a name for various small mechanical devices, often because the contraption was thought to resemble a child’s doll in some way. Thus a wooden device used in the 18th century to agitate clothes in a washtub was called a “dolly” because the user gripped it by two “arms” and twisted it, making the gizmo’s two “legs” churn the water in the tub.
“Dolly” wasn’t used to mean a small wheeled platform until around 1910 (not the 16th century), and by then the term “dolly” had largely lost the original “looks kinda like a person” sense. It is possible, of course, that someone saw a resemblance between a primitive wheeled “dolly” and human arms and legs, but doubtful. It’s more likely that “dolly” was used because of such carts’ small size when compared to larger trucks, wagons and similar conveyances.
It’s also possible that “dolly” in the wheeled sense harks back to “dolly” as a generic term for a lower-class woman or girl, especially a servant. Thus a “dolly” would be so-called because it “helps” or “serves” in the task of moving heavy objects.
If that “servant” connection is true, it would make “dolly” in this sense a cousin of the “lazy susan,” the revolving tray sometimes placed on dining tables to hold condiments or side dishes. This device had been called a “dumb-waiter” in Britain since the 18th century, but when it was introduced to the US in the late 19th century it became known as a “lazy susan,” almost certainly because “Susan” was considered a common name for female servants.