Phallic Mural from Pompeii
Image from GaySpirit
The origins of the word dildo are as mysterious as the object itself. Recently I’ve begun searching for the etymology of dildo, hoping that in finding it, I will find a key to my existence. I’m like the kid in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, searching for the lock to the key his father gave him, minus the tambourine and Max Von Sydow (By the way, Max Von Sydow, if you’re reading this blog, I’d love to have you join me on my journey of discovery). Since I’ve started searching, I’ve become even more confused about its origins, and the mystery of dildo has only grown in my mind. The most common theory is that the word may have come from diletto: an Italian word for “a woman’s delight.” The same source also says that there’s speculation it came from dally which means “to toy.” Other theories point to its origins in the Old English word “dill-doll,” which comes from “the Norse word ‘dilla,’ meaning ‘to soothe.’”
By 1889, dildo was out of favor, according to a slang dictionary of the time, and the more popular term was “broom handle.” This dictionary defines dildo with such beautiful specificity that I’ve excerpted the whole thing here. (And wth all this anti-contraception legislation being bandied about, I wouldn’t be surprised if this definition comes back into favor):
“An instrument made of various soft, pliable substances, and resembling the male pudendum, used by women, who possessing strong amatory passions, and forced to live celibate lives, are afraid of pregnancy following natural copulation. “
I also learned that historically, dildo hasn’t always been used as s a sexual term. A dictionary from the early 1900s defined it as “A term of obscure cant or slang origin, used in old ballads and plays as a mere refrain or nonsense word; also used, from its vagueness, as a substitute for various obscene terms, and in various obscene meanings.” The Online Etymology Dictionary claims that its first use was in the late 1500s, in a Thomas Nash poem, called The Choice of Valentines, Nashe’s Dildo or The Merrie Ballad of Nashe his Dildo. Wikipedia says that a theory exists that “it originally referred to the phallus-shaped peg used to lock an oar in position on a dory (small boat). It would be inserted into a hole on the side of the boat, and is very similar in shape to the modern toy.”
Prior to the 20th century, it was also used as a verb meaning “to play wantonly with a woman.” The synonym listed is firkytoodle which is one of the best words I’ve come across since borborygmus.
I’ve concluded that the etymology of dildo will not be found in reference books. Dildo continues to be an enigma, which seems appropriate given that the word and the object itself are both muses to me. But that won’t stop me from searching. Because I know that once I find the origin of dildo I will have unlocked one of the keys to the sexual universe.