origin and history of the word ‘dandy’



a man unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable




As it was originally in use on the Scottish Border at the end of the 18th century, dandy represents perhaps the name Andrew. (From Dandie Dinmont (i.e. Andrew Dinmont), the name of a character in Guy Mannering; or, The Astrologer (1815), by the Scottish novelist and poet Walter Scott (1771-1832), comes the name of the breed of terrier from the Scottish Border.) Similarly, from the late 19th century, the name Johnny was used in England to denote a fashionable young man of idle habits. For example, The Daily News (London) of Monday 15th July 1889 published the review of a play, in which it was said that an actor named Allan Aynceworth played “with a very keen though quiet sense of humour” the part of “an idle and vacuous young aristocrat, of the class popularly known as ‘Johnnies’”.


According to another theory, dandy is an abbreviation of, or a back-formation from, Scottish dandilly, meaning a pet, a darling, and first recorded in a poem by the makar William Dunbar (1460?-1530?); dandilly is also used as an adjective meaning petted, spoiled by being made too much of. This word in turn seems to be a derivative of the verb dandill, Scottish form of dandle. This verb is first attested in Lesclarcissement de la langue francoyse (1530), by the teacher and scholar of languages John Palsgrave (died 1554), in the sense to move (a baby or young child) up and down in a playful or affectionate way:

I dandyll, as a mother or nourryce doth a childe upon their lappe.

Edward Fenton used it to mean to toy with in Certaine secrete wonders of nature containing a descriptio[n] of sundry strange things, seming monstrous in our eyes and iudgement, bicause we are not priuie to the reasons of them (1569), a translation of Histoires prodigieuses extraictes de plusiers fameux auteurs grecs & latins (1560), by Pierre Boaistuau (circa 1517-1566); in the chapter titled A Historie very notable of Prodigeous Loues, he wrote that an “amorous Dame, named Lays

was soughte vnto of many Kings and noble men, whome she courted and dandled with such dissimuled sleightes in loue, that if hir louers were vnfainedly passioned and burned extremely in the desire of hir beautie, she tooke a singular pleasure to smile and ieste at their simplicitie and folly.

In the sense to make much of, to pet, dandle is first recorded in The Princely Pleasures at the Courte at Kenelwoorth. That is to saye, The Copies of all such Verses, Proses, or poetical inuentions, and other Deuices of Pleasure, as were there deuised, and presented by sundry Gentlemen, before the Quene’s Majestie, in the yeare 1575 (published in 1576), by the English poet George Gascoigne (circa 1535-1577):

Could I but touch the strings,                  which you so heavenly handle:
I would confesse, that fortune then,     full freendly dyd me

The verb dandle, dandill, is perhaps ultimately from an unattested nasalised variant dand of the Scottish and northern-English verb dad, probably of imitative or expressive origin, meaning to strike so as to shake, to jolt, to beat or throw with violence. Two other verbs, dadder, meaning to shake, to totter, and dander, to walk idly or purposelessly, to stroll, saunter, seem to be derived from dad.

The verb dandle may therefore be compared with Italian dondolare, to rock, sway, dangle, swing, nod, and to the synonymous French dodeliner (now mainly used in dodeliner de la tête, to nod one’s head gently), from dodiner, of same meanings. These verbs are probably from an onomatopoeic base do(n)d- expressing swaying, swinging, rocking.

The following is from A Worlde of Wordes, Or Most copious, and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English (1598), by John Florio (baby, puppy and pug mean a plaything, as a doll)):

Dondola, a babie, a puppie, a pugge, a conceit, a humour, a fancie, any foolish sport [= pastime] or solace. It is also a kinde of play at the ball. Also dandling or dangling.
Dondolare, to play the babie, puppie, or gull. Also to dandle or dangle.

And Randle Cotgrave wrote, in A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611):

Dodeliner. To rocke, or iog vp and downe; also, to dandle, to loll, or lull, to fedle [= to cosset], cocker, hug fondly, make a wanton of.
    Dodeliner de la teste. To nod often, or wag the head much; to carrie the head vnsteadily, or like a boat in a storme.
Dodiner. To rocke; shake, shog, wag vp and downe; or, as Dodeliner.


The following was published in Notes and Queries of 29th July 1893 (8th Series, IV, pages 81 to 83):


What is a dandy? Much has at various times been said on the subject in ‘N. & Q.’ If I am able to throw any further light upon it, I fear I shall yet leave it surrounded with much obscurity, with much to baffle and perplex. The consideration of the word will involve that of two others, jack-a-dandy and dandiprat, with which I will deal in order.

(a.) Dandy.—The familiar use of this word is certainly due to that well-known clique of exquisites who astonished and amused London in the days of the Regency. Mr. Solly (6th S. ix. 35) dates their appearance at 1816; but I have found somewhat earlier mention of them. Lord Byron, writing to Moore, July 26, 1813, says, “The season has just closed with a Dandy ball,” which, by-the-by, Mr. Jeaffreson calls “the famous dandy ball, at which Byron was one of the dandies.” Their special characteristics are thus noted by Moore (‘Fudge Family,’ 1818):—
A thing, you know, whisker’d, great-coated, and laced,
Like an hour-glass, exceedingly small in the waist.
But dandies were known before this, and in a quarter where we should scarcely have expected to find them, viz., the border counties of England and Scotland. It appears that the young sparks of the country side, who frequented “kirk and fair” during the later years, at least, of last century, and astonished sober people by their gorgeous dress and manner, were called dandies.
1. Jamieson (‘Scottish Dictionary’) quotes the following from the poems of R. Galloway, 1788. Greatly it puzzled me when I first came upon it:
And laugh at ilka Dandy at that Fair day.
2. Here is a snatch of song, the history of which is curious. Mr. Frank Kidson, of Leeds (to whom I am indebted for much help in this inquiry), wrote it down from the lips of an old lady who had learnt it from her grandmother, Mrs. Tibbie Shiel. This latter person kept a public-house at St. Mary’s Loch, Yarrow, in the early years of our century, and was known to Scott, Hogg, and Prof. Wilson:—
I’ve heard my granny crack
O’ sixty twa years back,
Where there were sic a stock of Dandies, O:
Oh, they gaed to Kirk and Fair
Wi’ their ribbons round their hair,
And their stumpie drugget coats, quite the Dandy, O.
It is impossible to assign an exact date to this song. But Mr. Kidson tells me that Tibbie Shiel must have been born about 1770; and as an old woman singing to her grandchildren would pretty surely go back to the songs of her youth, we may very fairly suppose it to be contemporary with Galloway’s poem, c. 1780-90.
3. In the ‘Cumbrian Ballads’ (published 1823) there is a song called ‘Carel Fair,’ dated 1819, from which I take the following:—
I ruise afwore three tudder mwornin
And went owre to see Carel Fair:
I’d heard monie teales o’ thur Dandies,
Odswings! how they mek the fwok stare!
Then follows a prose description of their appearance, reminding us of Moore’s above given, and perhaps echoing the descriptions of London dandyism. Still, the dandies of Carel (Carlisle) Fair seem certainly to carry on the tradition of Border dandyism, of which the eighteenth century has told us.
4. But here is another notable thing. About the same date, c. 1780, a whole series of songs was in vogue, all having for refrain “the Dandy O;” they were sung to the tune which Moore took for ‘Eveline’s Bower,’ and which was best known in my early days as ‘The One-Horse Shay,’ and in most, though not in all of these, “the dandy” means “the correct thing,” “the ticket,” “the cheese.” In the comic opera ‘Two to One,’ by Geo. Colman the younger (1784), there is a song, of which this is the first verse:—
There is a Chambermaid who lives in the South,
So tight, so light, so neat, so gay, so handy O,
Her breath is like the rose, and the pretty little mouth
Of pretty little Tippet is the Dandy O.
It would be too long to quote others; but a later example may be seen, given by R. R. in 6th S. ix. 136, and I may note that this phrase, “the dandy” = “the cheese,” “the pick of the basket,” &c, though lost from our use, appears to be still current in the States.
Further than this I cannot trace the word, and here, therefore, is the place to correct a blunder which Mr. Walford (6th S. viii. 515) has passed on from a writer in the Mirror, 1838. He is speaking of the coin called “dandiprat,” “which, observes Bp. Fleetwood, was the origin of the term dandy, applied to worthless and contemptible persons.” If Fleetwood had said this, it would carry the word back to the very beginning of the eighteenth century; but he said nothing of the kind. He was speaking simply and solely of dandiprat. “There were also little pieces coined by Henry VII., called dandypratts, which I suppose were little or contemptible things, because that word has since been used to signifie small and worthless people” (‘Chron. Preciosum,’ chap. iii. published c. 1709). Thus there remains no such early evidence for the use of the word; and certainly no evidence that it ever was applied in mere contempt.
So far as we can see, the dandy, though often laughed at, has always received a certain amount of popular or vulgar admiration. Very many of the laughers would be glad enough to imitate his humours if they thought they could carry them equally well, and the use of “the dandy” for “the correct thing” adds to the evidence which dissociates from the word a notion of what is merely base.

(b.) I come now to jack-a-dandy, which goes further back in time. My first example is from Vanbrugh’s comedy ‘The Confederacy’ (1705), V. i. Flippanta says to her lover Brass, “Hold your prating, Jack a dandy, and leave me to my business.” From ‘Sir Charles Grandison,’ IV. l. 29: “Notwithstanding all the Jack-a-dandies that have been fluttering about you [Harriet Byron] you are what you were when I left you.” And Mr. Birkbeck Terry gives two more (6th S. ix. 319), which are, however, merely variants:—
Smart she is and handy O,
Sweet as sugar candy O.
.    .    .    .    .    .
And I’m her Jack-a-dandy O.
From these it appears that “Jack-a-dandy,” like “Jemmy Jessamy,” &c, was the title of a smart young fellow, fit, or at least thinking himself fit, to be a ladies’ darling. I do not think that Flippanta, though she speaks petulantly, has any different intention, and so I do not set much value on the testimony of Dyche’s ‘Dictionary’ (1744), where it is defined, “a little impertinent insignificant fellow.” At least the examples we possess are 
against this, and the traditional meaning appears to be preserved in the more modern “dandy-jack.” “My, he do go dandy-jacking along the cliff,” says some one in a novel by Mr. Manville Fenn.

(c.) Dandiprat.—This is a very puzzling word. As we have seen in the quotation from Fleetwood, it bore two senses: (1) It was the name of a coin said to have been issued by Henry VII., of value about three halfpence (so R. Records, 1542); and (2) it was used in the sense of dwarf, urchin, whipper-snapper. Of these, so far as present evidence shows, the coin-name is certainly the earlier. It is spoken of by W. Tyndal (‘Practise of Prelates’), and by Palsgrave (‘L’Eclaircissement de Ia L. Fr.’), both at date 1530. The earliest example of the dwarf-sense that I have been able to obtain is in John Heywood’s poem ‘The Spider and the Flie’ (1556):—
Yet as the giantes pawes pat downe dandipratts,
So shall we put downe these dandiprat brag brattes.
Unless, therefore, we shall choose to jump over the evidence, and assume the later sense to be the earlier, we must perforce discard such excursions in etymology as that of the ‘Imperial Dictionary,’ which derives the word “from dandy, a fop, and prat, probably for prate, or for brat.” Doubly preposterous, seeing that, on the evidence, the dwarf-sense is posterous to the coin-name; and beyond all reasonable doubt, dandy is a long way posterous to dandiprat.

But now for the supposed connexion between these three, dandy, jack-a-dandy, and dandiprat. I see no great difficulty in assuming a connexion between the first two; but I very greatly doubt their affinity with dandiprat. Bishop Fleetwood’s testimony that this last word meant something mean and contemptible, is very much borne out by the examples of it which we possess, going on to the end of the seventeenth century. At best it has been applied jokingly to a little urchin; but even this leaves us a long way off from the “exquisite” dandy, and we have nothing with which to bridge over the interval.
The same objection applies, and as it seems to me with yet greater force, to the connexion proposed by Dr. Cobham Brewer and Miss Busk (6th S. ix. 35), and partly also by Prof. Skeat, with the Fr. dandin, dandiner. Cotgrave (1611) explains dandin as “ninny, noddy, meacock”; dandiner, “to goe gaping ill fauoredly, to gape and looke like an asse”; and Littré much to the same effect explains the verb, “balancer son corps d’une manière gauche et nonchalante.” Your dandin is, and always was, a lout; and a lout is the antipodes of a dandy. Not in outward semblance only. The first Lord Lytton has somewhere said:—
“Since the days when Alcibiades lounged into the Agora with doves in his bosom, the fop has always been credited with some power of becoming a hero”;
but the lout never. Our old friend George Dandin was forced to go on his knees and ask pardon of the woman whom he knew to have betrayed and befooled him; a little of the complexion of a dandy might have saved him from falling so low. If, therefore, we are to accept the theory that dandin has boxed the compass and become dandy, we ought at least to be furnished with some proof of the transition; but we have none whatever.
Thus, then, it remains. The origin of dandiprat is unknown and apparently unknowable, and the origin of dandy and jack-a-dandy is about equally lost in the clouds.

C. B. Mount.

P.S.—It is just worth while to ask whether anything might be made out of the name Andrew. Dandie is its familiar form in Scotland; and the humours of the dandy are nearer to the grimaces of the Merry Andrew than to the awkwardness of the dandin.

2 thoughts on “origin and history of the word ‘dandy’

  1. See the Haberdasher Dandy cartoon of 1818 http://mikerendell.com/inside-a-regency-haberdashery-shop/. Also coat of arms 1819 https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?partid=1&assetid=46276001&objectid=1519711.
    The link is to the Dando hat maker who owned posh mens hat and clothes shops (Haberdashers) in London Bristol from 2nd half of 1700s and later in New York. I understand that the word Dandy became attached to someone who had dressed up in this store of Dando’s.


    1. I think it is rather unlikely, because the word dandy first appeared on the Scottish Border in the end of the 18th century and was in vogue in London only about 1813–1819.


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