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shameless pleading






On wheels.

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.

7 comments to Dolly

  • SampleAndy

    So the thing with the condiments in the middle of the dining room table and mini elevator used to bring foods up from the kitchen to the dining room are called the same thing? (except for the possibility of a hyphen of course) Evan, are they ever going to come up with a revision of English that makes sense? Do you know anything about Esperanto? (sigh)

  • David

    Like your analogies. Dolly is a very American term I believe as my time in Australia and NZ no one knew what I meant when I said ‘dolly’. Hand Truck seemed to work most times.

    I am now in a French colonial country and they don’t recognise ‘dolly’ either, so most likely not a continental term.

    As far the lifting by servants, that makes perfect sense to me… for what ever that is worth.

  • Wilson Laidlaw

    I first came across the term when working as the assistant engineer in my father’s textile mill in the north of Scotland in the 1950’s. When we were moving or installing heavy pieces of machinery, weighing many tons, we would use a series of “dollies”. These were low steel platforms about 20 x 30cm, with two or more hardened steel rollers on roller bearings underneath. They commonly had a turntable on the top. We would jack up the machinery with heavy duty 10 ton hydraulic jacks and then position up to 10 of these dollies under the feet of the machinery. It was then possible to roll the machinery into place using a chain winch. You could put a long steel tommy bar into each dolly and rotate it on the turntable to move the machinery in a different direction.

  • M Lambe

    Helpful yet one longs to know the contribution of the portable blacksmith wheeled anvil Dolly. Or is an easy catch in Cricket termed a “Dolly?” because it is connected to an easy woman (sigh)? Any link between cricket & the shape of a Dolly rivet tool? Yeah, seems unlikely to me too. From whence derives the expression, “Full up to “Dolly’s wax” announcing a content, extremely full state sated tummy? Is all of this related to a laundry Dolly, seems possible. I have no idea if a corn doll (corn mother? is related to a child’s doll or each is independent of the other. Quite curious!

  • Jeanie

    The small “resembling a human” dolly probably has its beginnings in the word idol.

  • Stefanie

    Like M. Lambe, I also wonder if the word “dolly”, meaning a tool to easily move furniture or other heavy items, has in its origins something related to an “easy” or “loose” woman? If so, in light of current World events, I think it should be abolished from use in the English language! As a woman who is neither loose or easy, I am offended! If all of these other words/terms/names are going to be removed (i.e. “eskimo”), wouldn’t it stand to reason that “dolly” should be removed as a name for moving anything “easily” as well? Food for thought at the very least, I think!

  • Lisa Alkoraishi

    Dollies are essential tools for warehouses or factories to move or transport heavy loads. Dollies are easy to use for both new or old employees, or even tech-minded employees, and those who simply prefer the simplicity of manual labor. Further, dollies are made for long-lasting and perfect for heavy-duty. A dolly can last several consecutive decades without any major repairing.

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