English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

My mother who was born in 1917 used this term just as someone might use conniption fit. When I asked her where the word dido came from she said that her grandmother used it. I can't find anything that puts these two words together.

She was raised by her grandmother in Benton, AR.

share|improve this question
Welcome to EL&U. I've never heard "dido" before, but using a search engine found me merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dido and "a mischievous or capricious act : prank, antic -—often used in the phrase cut didoes." Could you provide "conniption dido" in a sentence? And perhaps find out if there are any search engine results that are close? – rajah9 Jun 27 '13 at 14:20
Bill Cosby has a schtick about a conniption fit: youtube.com/watch?v=uemepjbj8N8 – rajah9 Jun 27 '13 at 14:43

This answer is mostly a follow-up to issues that StoneyB raised (justly, in my opinion) in his answer regarding the claimed connection between the term dido and Dido of the Aeneid.

Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1864) has this entry for dido:

Dido, n. pl. didos. A trick; an antic; a caper. To cut a dido, to play a trick:—so called from the trick of Dido, who having bought so much land as a hide could cover, cut it into a long string to inclose more than was intended.

But subsequent Webster's dictionaries backed away from making that connection; and by the time of the First Collegiate (1898), the entry for dido contained the note "Etym. uncertain."

The source of the Dido connection is difficult to pin down. Nineteenth-century periodicals and cyclopedias of knowledge exhibit much the same echo-chamber effect as today's Internet. Google Books returns a dozen or so brief articles published between 1840 and 1880 (many with more than a passing similarity in wording) that link the word dido to Dido in the Aeneid. The oldest one that I could find is this item from an article called "Origin of Words and Phrases," in Samuel G. Goodrich, Robert Merry's Museum (1841):

"He's cut a Dido." It is told in history, that Dido, a queen of Tyre, about eight hundred and seventy years before Christ, fled from that place upon the murder of her husband, and with a colony settled on the northern coast of Africa, where she built Carthage. Being in want of land, she bargained with the natives for as much as she could surround with a bull's hide. Having made the agreement, she cut a bull's hide into fine strings, and tying them together, claimed as much land as she could surround with the long line she had thus made. The natives allowed the cunning queen to have her way, but when anybody played off a sharp trick, they said he has "cut a Dido;"—and the phrase has come down to our day.

However, this account has a serious shortcoming: There are scarcely any instances in Google Books, in the period from 1800 to 1880, of the phrase "cut a dido," except in the word-origin explanations of Goodrich and those who paraphrased him. I found just one such instance prior to 1879 (after which date I stopped looking)—in Susanna Moodie, Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853):

"A dog, sir," quoth the singing master, not in the least abashed by the reproof. "If the brute had cut up such a dido under your bed, you would have been as 'turnal sceared as I was."

On the other hand, Google Books finds numerous instances of the plural forms "cut didos" or (more often) "cut didoes." The earliest instance in Google Books' results appears in Laughton Osborn, Sixty Years of the Life of Jeremy Levis, book 6 (1831):

The Doctor not only appeared to have lost all gaiety of temper, but acted as though his wits were buried in the ruins of his dwelling. He would start at every little noise, like a child that has been reading of ghosts...and press his hands to his head, as though the latter were still aching from the concussion of the earth; and, when asked what ailed him, he would fall to cursing the city, and damning the earthquakes, and swear that, rather than spend another year in Cumana, he would make a second Empedocles, and bury himself at once in the bowels of Aetna. Then, after cutting a few more didos, (if I may apply so vulgar a phrase to a man of the Doctor's refinement,) he would add, more quietly, that his friends must not be surprised if he left the place in a week.

The next instance in Google Books is from the following year, in an uncredited story called "Broker Bullion, or Fashionable Life in Saratoga" in The North American Magazine (December 1832):

and having listened to the consolatory remark of Hayfield that she "need not cut up sich didoes, for every dam would have her day, and some men would marry any thing"—entered the first coach departing...

Various nineteenth-century dictionaries of U.S. slang reported the phrase "cut didoes," starting with John Russell Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms (1848):

TO CUT DIDOES. Synonymous with to cut capers, i.e., to be frolicksome. "Who ever heerd them Italian singers recitin' their jabber, showin' their teeth, and cuttin' didoes at a private consart..." —Sam Slick in England [1843], ch. 15. "Watchman! Take that 'ere feller to the watchhouse; he comes here a cutting up his didoes every night." —Pickings from the Picayune, p. 86.

Another interesting comment comes from Maximillian Schele De Vere, Americanisms: The English of the New World (1872):

As long as the rowdy is thus at work in comparative harmlessness, on a spree or in a rumpus, he is very fond of designating his peculiar proceedings as cutting up something, apparently desirous to convey the idea that some mischief, some cutting must be mixed up with it or there would be no fun in it to him. He cuts capers, he cuts up shines, he even cuts didoes, as if he would imitate famous Queen Dido in her cunning device by which she received her magnificent "hide" of land. Such at least is Professor Mahn's interpretation of an expression which so far has baffled all research...."This 'ere Frenchman has been cutting up didoes in my house now for several days; he ain't sober onst a week, and breaks all my cheers and tables, Mr. Recorder." (Pickings from the Picayune, p. 147.)

The "Professor Mahn" mentioned in this extract is "C.A.F. Mahn, of Berlin," whom Merriam-Webster put in charge of etymology research for the 1864 Webster's Dictionary quoted near the beginning of this answer.

Several twentieth-century dictionaries of slang have entries for dido or didoes. Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, fifth edition (1961) offers these three entries in addition to the older "cut [or cut up] didoes":

dido. Rum [source]: military (mostly Regular Army): C. 20.

dido. v. 'To steal from carts in the street': Australian cant: C. 20.

act dido. To play the fool: Naval: C. 20. A variant of cut a dido.

Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flaxner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960) reports that "cut didoes" (meaning "to be frolicsome") is obsolete. But it includes this modern entry for dido:

dido n. A complaint; a reprimand. 1958. "Dido—A minor complaint of a superior against a cop." G. Y. Wells, Station House Slang.

And finally, Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) has this intriguing entry:

cut didoes v phr by 1807 To frivol and frolic; =horse around [origin uncertain; the notion of reference to the notorious behavior of the crew of HMS Dido has no confirmation]

I haven't been able to find any information about hijinks aboard the HMS Dido.

It's rather astonishing that the phrase "conniption dido" occurs essentially nowhere on the Internet but in this EL&U question. I wonder if the original poster may have misheard the second word of the term his mother used, or if perhaps she misheard it from her grandmother.

share|improve this answer
Even my detractors concede that "some" sources support the theory of the connection with Dido the Queen of Carthage. They just choose not to believe them. I do. Just because pieces of information aren't readily available on the internet today doesn't mean that they aren't buried somewhere in "antiquity." – Tom Au Jun 14 '15 at 21:58

Dido was the legendary queen and founder of Carthage who, as a princess, threw a fit when her younger brother, the king of Tyre, murdered her husband for his supposed wealth in "bags of gold." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dido_of_Carthage. Dido threw the bags of gold into the sea, and then left Tyre in a huff.

So a "conniption dido" would be a conniption fit. The latter term was used by one of my governesses, who was born in 1905, shortly before your grandmother.

share|improve this answer
What a wonderfully secret bit of erudition. I wonder how many of the old ladies in question actually knew where the word came from. I most certainly wouldn't have. – terdon Jun 27 '13 at 18:38
Hmm ... it's wonderfully ingenious, but it smells like the scholarly equivalent of folk etymology to me. It doesn't explain why didos first appears attributed to a rural Yankee clockmaker; or why its basic sense, unmodified by 'conniption', is a 'prank' or 'caper' or 'row' – StoneyB Jun 28 '13 at 2:37
Dido's actions would be described by many in OED terms: "a caper; a disturbance, ‘row’, ‘shindy’; esp. in phr. to cut (up) didoes.: – Tom Au Jun 19 '14 at 22:49

OED 1 gives this:

Dido2 (dəi⋅d_0_) U. S. slang. [Origin uncertain.] A prank, a caper; a disturbance, ‘row’, ‘shindy’; esp. in phr. to cut (up) didoes.
1843-4 HALIBURTON Sam Slick in Eng. (Bartlett), Them Italian singers recitin’ their jabber .. and cuttin’ didoes at a private concert. 1851 New York Tribune 10 Apr. (Farmer Amer.) We should have just the same didoes cut up by the chivalry.  1869 MRS. STOWE Oldtown Folks. 106 They will be a consultin’ together and cuttin’ up didos.  1893 Q. [COUCH] Delectable Duchy 271 What a dido he do kick up to be sure.

All these uses of dido seem to me to have had an underlying sense of ‘spectacle’ or ‘performance’. Your great-grandmother's conniption dido very likely implied that the conniption fit was to some extent contrived: as we now say, “acting out”.

share|improve this answer
A fuller version for the New York Tribune quotation is in Farmer & Henley, Slang an Its Analogues (1891): "Had the Free States been manly enough,true enough, to enact the Wilmot Proviso as to all present or future territories of the Union, we should have had just the same didoes cut up by the chivalry that we have witnessed,and with no more damage to the Union." – Sven Yargs Jun 28 '13 at 3:35
Farmer & Henley define didoes as "Pranks, tricks; fantastic proceedings." They also find an earlier (1835) example than the OED's from Halliburton, in Clockmaker: "I met a man this mornin' ... from Halifax, a real conceited lookin' critter as you e'enamost ever seed, all shines and didoes." – Sven Yargs Jun 28 '13 at 3:40
@SvenYargs Same Halliburton, it seems, same speaker: Sam Slick, the travelling clockmaker, a Yankee working a Nova Scotia circuit. – StoneyB Jun 28 '13 at 10:26
I'm struck by the fact that Farmer & Henley's early(ish) entry on didoes treats the term only as a plural (much as the term monkeyshines tends to appear, rather than monkeyshine), and yet "conniption dido" seems to be used predominantly in singular form. I'll do a bit more research into dido and didoes in my collection of books on slang and post an answer if anything interesting comes up. – Sven Yargs Jun 28 '13 at 19:14

Just want to add to Sven Yargs's excellent research. There is a mention of "didoes" in 1830. NY Morning Courier May 15, 1830

Now I'd hearn tell that them are sellers at the Circuits performed didoes that' are railly uncredible, and that some on em' can turn themselves tother side out as easy as I can shift an old meal bag!

share|improve this answer

I wanted to provide you with an update for the ghost town of Dido, TX. Your site mentioned that you did not know why it was named Dido. I think that you will appreciate the info. David Thurmond, my great great great grandfather, named the town Dido because; the trail through thickly covered terrain into the little town was covered in dido and as he would get very irritated (and quite verbal) would curse the dido. Once the town conveinde to name their precious little town, David, offered this as a name for the town in frustration. The people who frequented this area had the very same issues and...the name stuck. Yes, dido is a once slang term for... horse patties.

share|improve this answer

**Cutting didos is an antique expression. Comedian Fred Allen in his 1950 book "Much Ado About Me" mentions sitting in the parlor with his grandmother in 1915 and "cutting didos" (clowning around to kill time apparently--this was before smart phones and you had to do SOMETHING with your time. You could also "walk in the woods like Beethoven"!! What a fun, archaic phrase!! **

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.