Where did the word ‘golliwog’ come from?

I am aware that the term is considered offensive. And I know that it refers to soft faced black dolls. But before that character was introduced, did ‘golliwog’ have meaning? I mean was it made up, or was it coined from other words? I am not really sure I made myself clear.


Dictionary coverage of ‘golliwog’

Merriam-Webster’s Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) shows no hesitancy in declaring the source of the word golliwog:

golliwog also gollywog or golliwogg n {Golliwogg, an animated doll in children’s fiction by Bertha Upton †1912 Am. writer) (1895) 1 : a grotesque black doll 2 : a person resembling a golliwog

That same dictionary has this entry—with a far less definite etymology—for wog:

wog n {perh. short for golliwog} (ca. 1929) chiefly Brit, usu disparaging : a dark-skinned foreigner; esp : one from the Middle East or Far East

Consistent with Merriam-Webster’s reading of golliwog, Ernest Weekley, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921) has this entry for golliwog:

golliwog. Created in US by Miss Florence Upton. Perh. on golly (v.i.) with suggestion of dial. polliwog, tadpole, which is still common in US.

Weekley’s only entry for golly, however, is as “Negro perversion of God.” Weekley doesn’t have an entry for wog at all.

Eric Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, fourth edition (1966), has this for golliwog:

golliwog, better golliwogg, derives from Golliwogg, a fanciful name—? after polliwog, (now mostly AE for) a tadpole, ME polwigle (it wiggles its poll or head)—for the shaggy-haired, rather grotesque black doll of the Golliwogg books illustrated, the first in 1895, by Florence K. Upton and written by her mother, Bertha Upton; the last of them appeared in 1909. Florence Upton was born, of British parents, in the USA, where the Golliwogg books were first published.

Like Weekley, Partridge in Origins doesn’t have an entry for wog. But Eric Partridge, Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, fifth edition (1961), has multiple entries for both. from the first edition (1937) of this dictionary Partridge has this entry for wog:

wog (or W[og]) A lower-class babu shipping-clerk : nautical : late C. 19–20. [cited in F. Bowen, Sea Slang, 1929)

Regrettably, Partridge provides no guidance as to the meaning of babu here. The addenda section of the fifth edition of Slang and Unconventional English provides these interesting entries:

golliwog. A caterpillar: Australian: since ca. 1920. [Sidney Baker, Australian Slang], 1942. In ref. to the numerous very hairy caterpillars found in Australia and ex their resemblance to a golliwog doll.—2. A ‘fence’ or receiver of stolen goods: low (verging on c.): since ca. 1930.

golliwogs (or gollywogs), the. Greyhound racing: since ca. 1910. Rhyming on the dogs.

wog. Any Indian of India (not merely as [defined in the first edition’s “babu shipping-clerk” entry]); an Arab; ‘A native. Someone once called enlightened natives “Westernized Oriental gentlemen” and the name caught on’ (Jackson [It’s a Piece of Cake, 1943]), via the initials: R.A.F.: since ca. 1930. But Gerald Emmanuel goes nearer the mark, I think, when (letter of March 29, 1945) he asks, ‘Surely the derivation is from “golliwog”?—with reference to the frizzy or curly hair; wog, indeed, is a nursery shortening of golliwog.—2. A germ or parasite; anything small (e.g., tea-leaf floating on cup of tea): Australian: C. 20, [Sidney Baker, Australian Slang], 1942.—3. A baby; a very young child; Australian nursery: C. 20. Also pog-wog, poggy-wog, pog-top, poggle-top, etc. Baker …

woggery. An Arab village: Army and Air Force: since ca. 1930 (P-G-R.)

wogs, white. British and Continental European residents in Near and Middle East countries: Army and R.A.F.; since ca. 1930.

The upshot of all these instances of wog, golliwog, and gollywog is that they seem to owe their inspiration, ultimately, to the Golliwogg doll invented and drawn by Upton mère and fille between 1895 and 1910.

‘Golliwog’ and its variants in Google Books results

The Uptons’ first Golliwogg book is The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a “Golliwogg” (1895), and the Golliwogg makes his initial appearance on page 24:

With kindly smile he nearer draws;/Begs them to feel no fear./”What is your name?”/Cries Sarah Jane;/”The ‘Golliwogg‘ my dear.”

The illustrations, beginning on pages 23 and 24, depict the Golliwog as a sort of blackface Mr. Bill in a fright wig. Evidently these books were hugely popular both in North America and in Britain. Golliwog dolls were marketed in the United Sates and in the British Commonwealth, leading to discussions such as this one, from William Trowbridge, A Dazzling Reprobate (1906):

“Take care this self-inflicted economy doesn’t fade your scarlet emotion,” said Lothair pensively.

“On the contrary, it has heightened its colour,” cried Clanrebel. “I am quite infatuated with retrenchment, it has all the fascination of a gollywog.”

“And what is that?”

“A gollywog? Oh, luxury having exhausted itself to amuse the children of the English, invented the gollywog. It is the decadent doll of a decadent age. …”

It begins to appear as a descriptive term in the same period. From Alfred Sutro, The Fascinating Mr. Vanderveldt: A Comedy in Four Acts (1907):

CLARICE. (picks up paper from seat R.) Aggie, my child, you know the woman with the gollywog hair—across the road?

AGGIE. Mrs. Brevell? Our pet aversion?

And one can see the beginnings of application of the term to dark-skinned human beings in this cartoon exchange between a mother and daughter from The Bystander (April 19, 1905), a London periodical:

Dark Thoughts

“Now darling, be good and and go to nurse, and have your face and hands washed ready for tea”

“Wish I was a black gollywog, so’s I wouldn’t show the dirt”

“Golliwog” as a nickname is recorded in Ethel Younghusband, Glimpses of East Africa and Zanzibar (1910) [combine snippets]:

The day I engaged Wareroo I engaged also the Akamba boy I mentioned in a previous chapter. His head was shaved, except for a little bit the shape of a tooth-brush on his forehead, and he was very like a prize fighter in the face. He introduced a Kikuyu to me, whom I took into my employ, and actually kept him for many months ; he was perfectly happy looking after my chickens and the other animals, but did not like any other work. We nicknamed him Googly because his name Jirogi was such a mouthful, at the same time Monebe (the Akamba) was often called Golliwog because it suited him so well.

When Golliwog decamped after my generously praising him and giving him a vest, kanzu, and a rupee extra as a present, I took on one of All’s brothers (i.e. friends).

Finally we see the word golliwogs applied to native people of Zanzibar in The Nautical Magazine (1912) [combined snippets]:

These are the happy-go-lucky sidi-boys (sidi meaning fire) from Zanzibar, upon whose broad shoulders the day’s work in the stokehole falls. Undoubtedly they make capital firemen, and where white men collapse in the extreme heat of the Red Sea and Persian Gulf the curly-headed, red-lipped golliwogs thrive. Their spirits, to all intents and purposes, rise with the temperature and they sing and dance merrily to the tune of shovel and rake while others sit panting for air on deck.


All evidence points to the Uptons’ Golliwogg books as the source of the term golliwog. Though initially a character in an illustrated children’s book, the Golliwogg became even more popular in the West as an inexpensive doll, with black skin and wild hair. Google Books show instances of golliwog/gollywog being used as a descriptive term by 1907, and a nickname by 1910. Finally, the plural form golliwogs is applied to people of a certain ethnicity (ship hands from Zanzibar) by 1913.

I think it is extremely likely that the later slang term wog is simply a shortening of gollywog as applied to various dark-skinned people of Africa, the Near and Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent.

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