• shilly-shally •
Pronunciation: shi-li-shæ-li • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb, intransitive (no predicates)
Meaning: To dilly-dally, to dawdle, to tarry; to be indecisive, to hesitate lengthily.
Notes: Today's Good Word is a rhyming compound, a musical feature of language. These words are usually lexical orphans, but this word is accompanied by a noun, shilly-shallier, which was quite popular in the middle of the 19th century. However, it didn't last long enough to establish a correct spelling; so, shillishallier and shillyshallyer also appeared in print.
In Play: I'll bet you've heard this a hundred times: "Don't shilly-shally; I'm in a hurry!" Of course, shilly-shallying can cause mischief: "My lotto number was the winner this week, but because of my shilly-shallying, I didn't get to the store in time to buy a ticket."
Word History: Today's Good Word is a hand-me-down from a phrase that was popular in the 17th century, "to stand shall I, shall I?" As with all hand-me-downs this one is the worse for wear. An example from 1689 reads, "Who follows him that standeth, shall I, shall I?" This phrase soon changed to shill I, shall I, which didn't make sense to many speakers, since none of the meanings of shill fit the phrase. The next step was a natural one: we changed the word to a rhyming compound, like dilly-dally and willy-nilly, which is what it is today. (We are happy that Paula Whitaker did not shilly-shally, but promptly brought today's excellent Good Word to our attention.)