The origin of this odd term is unknown. It is an Americanism dating to the middle of the 19th century, but beyond that we don’t know much about its origins.
Lollygag, or as it is often spelled lallygag, has had several meanings. The earliest seems to be something of no worth, nonsense, foolery. From a poem about a dead milk cow that appears in the Sparta Democrat (Wisconsin) on 14 September 1859:
22 Kwarts of milck she give,
As true as Eye dew liv,
but now er 12 Kwart bag
Aint wuth a lallygag,
Poor old thyng!
And from the August 1862 issue of Harper’s Magazine we have:
Mr. Biggs paused and turned the flesh of the succulent lobster over with his finger. The gentleman inside addressed him:
“...Try er lobstaw, bossy?”
“Ain’t got no money,” said Mr. Biggs, still fingering the morsels.
“Oh, come now, none o’ that ere lallygag,” responded the gentleman.
The word quickly came to mean to flirt and engage in public displays of affection, a meaning it retains to this day. From the Northern Vindicator (Iowa) of 27 February 1868:
The lascivious lolly-gagging lumps of licentiousness who disgrace the common decencies of life by their love-sick fawnings at our public dances.
This sense of flirting gave rise to the what is today the most common sense of the word, to dawdle or dally. The Northern Vindicator, again, of 30 December 1868:
Present appearances indicate that winter will “lollygag” in the lap of spring.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton