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.

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    Interestingly, the word "wog" may have derived from "golliwog," according to dictionary.reference.com/browse/wog?s=t. Chiefly British Slang, wog is a disparaging and offensive term for a nonwhite, especially a dark-skinned native of the Middle East or Southeast Asia. Randy Newman used the word to ironic effect in his song "Sail Away," a song about the slave trade from the point of view of a slavetrader: ". . . climb aboard, little wog, sail away with me. Sail away, sail away, we will cross the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay." Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 18:18
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    @rhetorician In Australia, I've heard that 'wog' was originally an acronym standing for 'Western Oriental Gentleman,' and was an offensive and disparaging term for Chinese immigrants. It gradually broadened in meaning until it could be applied to almost any foreigner. That might be a folksonomy, though. Still, in my experience 'wog' is only ever used to describe to people from other countries (and their descendants); There's a whole separate vocabulary of offensive and disparaging terms for native Australian non-whites.
    – user867
    Commented Oct 19, 2015 at 23:13
  • I would strongly suspect that the word is a corruption of "polliwog" (a tadpole or other small aquatic creature), a word with roots in the mid 15th century and current spelling (though likely with several variants) going back to the 1830s, according to Online Etymology Dictionary.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 8, 2016 at 0:30

7 Answers 7


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.

  • OED has: “golliwog /ˈgɒlɪwɒg/. Also gollywog, Golliwogg. Etymology: perh. suggested by golly int. (= God) and polliwog, pollywog (dial. and U.S., = tadpole). A name invented for a black-faced grotesquely dressed (male) doll with a shock of fuzzy hair. Also shortened ˈgolly, Golly. Also attrib. and Comb.” 1895 B. Upton (title) ― The adventures of two Dutch Dolls–and a ‘Golliwogg’. [...]”
    – tchrist
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 12:42
  • I don't want to come off as greedy, but I would love to see an Yargsian investigation posted under this question on the etymology of prepone. Congrats on 100K+ btw! Quite the achievement.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Oct 25, 2018 at 17:11
  • Upton's novels and the popular dolls were the inspiration for a piece in Debussy's suite for piano, Children's Corner, composed 1906-1908, published in 1908, and dedicated to his daughter. The last piece is the well-known Golliwogg's Cake-Walk.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 20:42

Not sure if it's correct, but I did a bit of searching. Apparently, the word was a mixture of golly, as in:

Oh my golly, that man's on fire!

– and pollywog, which is a late Middle English word for tadpole (Oxford Dictionary). Golly was specifically used, according to the historian Gilbert White, as a "jolly kind of oath."

Here's the source for the etymology of gollywog, from a man smarter than I. It does have some offensive language, though, so read at your own risk.

  • It’s not Old English. In fact, it’s contemporary.
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 22:50
  • @tchrist Pollywog or gollywog? I know gollywog is, but I thought pollywog was at least as old as Middle English? I should edit my post to say middle and not late.
    – Magoo111
    Commented Jun 27, 2013 at 22:54
  • Link to source in your answer?
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 11:46
  • I'm not sure what you're asking - both sources I used are linked above. Is that a bad thing?
    – Magoo111
    Commented Jun 28, 2013 at 12:01
  • Certainly "pollywog" was used 50 years ago to mean "tadpole" (in fact it's been about that long since I heard it last), with no apparent prejudicial overtones. And I've heard/read "gollywog" a handful of times in various contexts, and always assumed it was just a made-up nonsense term (though it may have been used in reference to a ethnic minority -- I don't recall). I would be suspicious of any etymology that suggests it's other than a nonsense word that has perhaps acquired a meaning.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 12:30

Florence Uptown was quoted as saying that her mother found her a dusty doll in the attic and that she thought of the name Golliwogg without a thought process leading up to it. So while an idea of where the doll came from could be entertained, the name most likely just popped out of her imagination.


The story I was told was that when the soldiers of the British Army were in Egypt they saw children playing with black dolls . The soldiers took some of them back home and the children were given them to play with .Originally called Ghulliwogs it then became golliwogs. Nothing to do with black people at all !

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    Where's your evidence? Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 6:59

Completely made up name in abou 1893. About half way through this article this topic is mentioned.


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    Welcome to English Language and Usage. Please include the essential part of the link that answers the question as link-only answers are discouraged on Stack Exchange. Please let me know when you edit your answer and I will reverse my downvote. Thanks.
    – user140086
    Commented Dec 1, 2016 at 16:11

Golliwog was derived from the Eqyptian people who worked for the british. They had initials on their dress W.O.G.S. Asin so many acronyms, it was coined as a slang name for the Egyptians Working On Government Service. So The Acronym became to common name, as so many acronyms have in the past and probably will in the future.

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    Etymologies based on acronyms are (almost) always folk etymologies that crop up much later and have no basis in reality. This sounds like just such a case. Do you have any evidence that it's not? Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 12:07
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    @JanusBahsJacquet, to back you up on that, I remember my late father [who served in North Africa in WW2 then in Palestine after the war] telling me that WOG stood for Wily Oriental Gentleman! Commented Aug 9, 2015 at 19:00

The history of the Golliwog began during the British occupation of Egypt in the late 1800's .. Egyptian workers wore the letters W.O.G.S. Signifying that the were working on government projects.. These workers were named Ghuls ( the Arabic name for Desert Ghosts) by the British Troops ..


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