Pollywogs and Golliwogs

'Wog' is the word used by members of the Church of Scientology for non-scientologists (1), usually in a demeaning sense (2). Other groups have words that serve the same purpose, for example Ancient Greeks called non-Greeks 'barbarians' because of their uncouth speech (ba-ba-ba); Jews refer to non-Jews as 'goyim' which became the New Testament 'Gentiles'. Usually however these words have no reason to stray beyond the group: I doubt any dictionary will reveal that Science Fiction fen refer to non SF fans as 'mundanes'.

Where does 'wog' come from?

Oxford English Dictionary - Wog

wog1 wo(hook)g. slang. Origin uncertain: often said to be an acronym, but none of the many suggested etymologies is satisfactorily supported by the evidence.

1. A vulgarly offensive name for a foreigner, esp. one of Arab extraction.

2. The Arabic language.

3. a. attrib. passing into adj.

b. Comb.
wogland derog., a foreign country.

Hence also wogger, woggy a.

Another meaning entirely:

So the OED has picked up on two seperate meanings: a British racial insult and an Australian word associated with creepy-crawlies and germs. Can we connect the two?

Middle English 'polwygle' (literally 'wiggle-head') was an alternate word for the tadpole, the larval stage of the frog.(3) A number of dialect and local variants existed e.g. porriwiggle, purwiggy, pollywiggle, pollywoggle.
In his Dictionary Samuel Johnson cross referenced tadpole and 'porwigle'.(4)

The word eventually settled down to its present spelling 'pollywog'. In American English it is still used for tadpole, though I am uncertain if it remains in British English. The last reference I can trace that is not simply defining the word is from Hilaire Belloc: (5)

Be kind and tender to the Frog,
And do not call him names,
As 'Slimy skin'. or 'Polly-wog',
Or likewise 'Ugly James', [...]

Pollywogs and Shellbacks

At some point 'pollywog' seems to have aquired a second meaning: a slang term for an inexperienced sailor. The US (6) and Royal Navies have a ceremony of some antiquity: (7)

Line-Crossing Ceremony - The ceremony which turns POLLYWOGs into SHELLBACKs. Enjoyed much more by the Shellbacks than by the 'Wogs. Held when a vessel crosses the Equator. During the ceremony, POLLYWOGS are made to go through a number of ordeals, each more disgusting than the last. These trials are conducted in full view of KING NEPTUNE and his court. Once the ceremony is completed, the POLLYWOG is now a SHELLBACK. Similar ceremonies are conducted for Orders of the BLUENOSE and REDNOSE.

So here is our Pollywog, defined separately as:

Pollywog, polliwog - One who has never crossed the Equator and become a SHELLBACK. Aka 'wog'. Frequently modified by the adjective "slimy".

'Slimy' would seem to clinch the derivation.

In the Indian Navy 'pollywog' survived, but seems to have reverted to its amphibian form: (16)

Whereas by our royal condescension we decree that our trusted well behaved Jawaharlal Nehru has this day entered our domain and has been rightly and duly initiated with all form and ceremony as our subject on board the Indian Navalship Delhi.
We do hereby charge all sharks, whales, eels dolphins, gollywogs, pollywogs etc to abstain from eating, playing with or otherwise maltreating his person. And we further direct all sailors, mariners, soldiers, globe trotters and landlubbers who have not crossed the equator of our royal domain to treat him with the respect due to one of our loyal subjects.
Given at our court on the equator on this day the......... Longitude 90 degrees East.
Seal and signature of the Samudradhipati Lord Varuna

[join the Sea Org]

Now we have a connection with Scientology! During WWII L Ron Hubbard (1911-1986), founder and guru of Scientology, was a junior naval officer. Then if not earlier (his father was also in the US Navy) he could have come across 'wog' being used for the inexperienced and ignorant. Whilst on active service he sailed from the USA to Australia in 1942 so he was not himself a wog. Other naval references were incorporated into Scientology, senior staff wear imitation naval uniforms for example, so this was presumably how 'wog' entered Scientology jargon.

But wait - there's more.


As a child Florence Kate Upton (1875-1922) had lived in Flushing, New York where she had played with a minstrel doll bought at a fair. When Florence returned to England in 1894 following the death of her father she hit upon the idea of a children's book, the doll was found in an attic where it had been abandoned on a previous visit and it became the hero of her story.

"The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg" (illustrations by Florence, verse by her mother) became instantly popular - the Uptons produced twelve more books. (8)

It seems most likely that the doll represents a 'blacked up' entertainer from the minstrel shows popular at the time rather than a negro. Florence's Golliwogg, a gallant and heroic character, became a nursery favorite second only to the 'Teddy' bear (9). I myself had a golliwog as one of my toys in the 1950s which is plainly copied from Florence's books. Unfortunately the Uptons got no royalties from sales of the dolls, the days of spinoff merchandising had yet to come. There is an excellent biography of Florence Upton(22) still in print which includes a photograph of the original Golliwogg who now resides at the Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood(23) in Bethnal Green, London.

Florence herself said that without intention of naming him, without the idea of a name passing through my mind, I called him "Golliwogg".

The pictures come from Colombine Prints, who sell frameable prints taken from several of the Golliwogg books. In the first he is with his Dutch doll friends (17); the second is from "The Golliwogg's Christmas" (1903). My impression is that Florence started out trying to depict her dolls accurately, in the later picture you will see that he has become less like a doll.

James Robertson & Sons, English preserve manufacturers, introduced 'Golly' as their mascot and trade mark in 1910. 'Golly' enamel badges offered by the company in exchange for jam labels are nowadays collectors' items, as Golly Corner shows. Robertson's have their own explanation for 'Golly', claiming that the name is a corruption of 'dolly' whilst agreeing that the doll is of American origin (14).

A later generation of children will however have met golliwogs in Enid Blyton's Noddy stories where they are naughty creatures. The obvious potential for racist misunderstandings led to the Politically Correct demise of the golliwog. Illustrations in current editions of the Noddy books have undergone a Golly purge of Orwellian proportions.(18)


Another problem the golliwog faced was the use of the word 'wog' as a British racist term for Indians and Arabs. 'Wog' was never used for West Indian immigrants in the UK, for whom American racist words were borrowed. There is a phrase 'wogs begin at Calais' which pokes fun at British xenophobia, the earliest mention of this comes from the House of Commons in 1945: (13)

"During a debate in which the subject of the Burmese came up, the volatile George Wigg shouted at the Tory benches, 'The Honourable Gentleman and his friends think they are all "wogs". Indeed, the Right Honourable Member for Woodford [Churchill] thinks that the "wogs" begin at Calais."

At some stage a euphemistic acronym was devised deriving 'wog' from 'Wily/Westernised Oriental Gentleman'. It was apparently given a fake origin from WWII, though I've been unable to source this quote:

All Personel, South East Asia Theater of War:
Upon receipt and thereafter, you will cease refering to our allies as slopes, gooks, slants and yellow bastards and afford them the respect due to the worthy oriental gentlemen that they are.
Viscount Robert Mountbatten
Commanding General South East Asia
A similar offering is: (10)
"An Egyptian friend told me a story his grandfather told him. Those Egyptians "employed" in building the Suez canal wore shirts indicating that they were 'Working On Government Service'. I have no idea if this has any truth."

Though for 'wog' to have been picked up by the British Army in Egypt during the First World War is not improbable.
Partridge (11) starts his 'wog' definition with

A lower-class babu shipping-clerk: nautical: late C.19-20.
which is interesting as it may come from pollywog - Partridge seems unaware of the present day Naval useage, and so goes for 'golliwog' as the more likely source. The OED (above) picks up the same meaning.
'Babu' refers to English speaking Bengalis (15). Could 'wog' have come ashore at Calcutta and changed into a term of racial abuse? It could then have been Britons travelling to and from India who dropped 'wog' off in Egypt.
In the 1970s immigrants from the Indian sub-continent into Britain found the term 'wog' being applied to them. It was recently attached (allegedly) by a British government minister to Harrods owner Mohammed al Fayed, an Egyptian by birth.

Which brings us back to Scientology. In the 1960s Hubbard was living in England, and the world headquarters of Scientology was at Saint Hill, a country estate near East Grinstead. So could Hubbard's English followers have introduced the word 'wog' to Scientology? Most likely not, since there are instances of Hubbard using 'wog' before he came to the UK.
The Dianetics and Scientology Technical dictionary (1) makes the acronym connection, quoting from Saint Hill briefing courses - lectures given by Hubbard. Whether Hubbard was aware of how offensive 'wog' was (and still is) in the UK is debateable. Wog is not in general use in the USA.(19)

Was Florence correct in thinking that she invented the word 'Gollywogg'? Retelling the story in later life she may have genuinely thought that she had devised a nonsense name. The alternative is that her family bought her a doll with that or a similar description. If that is the case then there are various possibilities:

The first is that 'wog' existed as a term for negroes in the USA in the 1870s, and that a 'dollywog' is a black doll. This would fit with the Robertson's explanation.
The second is that there is some connection with 'pollywog' meaning a tadpole. In professional minstrel troupes which toured in both the U.S. and abroad from the 1840s there were two contrasting stock characters:(20)

"the gaudily dressed, shifty, smart-talking dandy of the streets [and] the childish and irresponsible but loyal and contented singing and dancing slave."

Presumably our golliwog with his fancy waistcoat represents the dandy not the slave. Pollywogs became inexperienced sailors, so did they also become longtailed and shifty dandies?

In this connection Claude Debussy's piece "The Golliwog’s Cakewalk", a movement from his Children’s Corner Suite (1908) might look like a lead, but it turns out that Debussy got the name from his young daughter’s Golliwogg books and doll. The Cakewalk was a popular Saturday night entertainment where the winning dancers got a cake as a prize, later incorporated into minstrel shows.

Florence quotes another attempt at a derivation: "...golli being a corruption of Dolly, a child's puppet, and wog a low form of the verb to wag".

OED2 gives an alternate meaning for 'pollywog': a corrupt US politician(12). The time frame is right, but this may be a red herring.

So we're stuck. The 1895 date for the book makes it the most likely origin for the racial wog, to displace it the naval meaning would have to be found to be in use racially earlier than 1929.

Wogs Down Under

Wogs in Australia have had a seperate but equally interesting life. From pollywog small wiggly things led to germs and thence via tuberculosis to coughs and sneezes(11), as the OED notes above.

Later a different use of the word emerged: in the absence of arabs or indians in Australia immigrants from Southern Europe were designated 'wogs'.(21) The two meanings have even collided giving a humorous ambiguity to "I spent the weekend in bed with a wog".

Wikipedia Wogs

The Wikipedia entry on Wog is the other good source of trivia on 'wog'. It has added some other minor uses of the word, such as acronyms for 'water-oil-gas' pipes and for 'without giblets' processed chickens. No, I didn't believe either of those at first!

Other uses of 'wog' pop up from time to time. In Australia a 'woghead' is a type cof fish lure, whereas in England it is used by schoolchildren for anyone having a bad hair day. Presumably the former comes from wiggling worm wogs, the latter from 'Afro' hairstyles. English 'woghead' is such a taboo word it was difficult to find a stable reference, I finally tracked one down on a Racial equality website!(24)

Thanks to all those on the newsgroups alt.religion.scientology and alt.usage.english who contributed their wisdom and erudition to this inquiry, plus the editors of the Wikipedia wog article.
Please send more pieces for this puzzle to


  1. Definitions from the Dianetics and Scientology Technical dictionary, L Ron Hubbard 1983:
    (1) worthy Oriental gentleman. This means a common ordinary run-of-the-mill garden variety humanoid.. (SH Spec 82, 6611C29)
    (2) a wog is somebody who isn't even trying. (SH Spec 73,6608C29)
    Apologists have claimed that Wog is rarely used nowadays, though a little digging soon found it on a recruiting flyer (© 2000 CSCCL) from the CoS Celebrity Centre in Hollywood, as reproduced above. Thanks to anon (alt.religion.scientology) for the scan!
    Whilst Americans might claim ignorance, Britons cannot. Nevertheless here is a British scientologist:
    "I arrived at Saint Hill shy, introverted and somewhat out of valence. I had been working at a wog job, and I knew my priorities had to change...." (The Auditor UK # 318 June 2004 p5)
  2. "You'll find out most people, wog people have mock-ups which are two-dimensional" - L Ron Hubbard, "Creative Admiration Processing" lecture, 10 January 1953
    "We're making a new [society]. So let's skip the approval button from a lot of wogs and settle down to work to make new people and better people." - L Ron Hubbard, HCOPL 26 May 1961
    "We work in a jungle of noncompliance and false reports called the wog world." - L Ron Hubbard, HCOPL 5 Jan 1968
    Thanks to Martin Hunt and Chris Owen (alt.religion.scientology) for these and other quotes.
  3. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 1995.
    Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition.
  4. 1843 abridged edition. 1st Edition 1755.
  5. The Bad Child's Book of Beasts, 1896.
    Spotted by Brian J Goggin (alt.usage.english).
  6. 'Eric' (alt.religion.scientology) drew my attention to this.
  7. The 'Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea' quotes Aubin's 'Dictionnaire Nautique' (1702) and Woodes Rogers's 'A Cruising Voyage round the World' (1712) as early mentions of a ceremony with King Neptune.
    Quotes from the Naval Terminology, Jargon and Slang FAQ.
  8. Florence K Upton and Bertha H Upton, The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg (London: Green and Co., 1895).
  9. Named after bear hunter and US President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903.
  10. Reid Coleman (alt.usage.english). Since this reproduces exactly the format of the classic Urban Legend it must be regarded with suspicion!
  11. Concise Dictionary of Slang, Eric Partridge, 1989.
  12. 1864 Sala in Daily Tel. 27 Sept., "The slimy machinations of the pollywog politicians have usurped the government of our city", said Poer.
  13. Lawrence James The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (St. Martin's Press, New York, 1994, pp.559-560). Sent in by Paul G. Shaw.
  14. see the 'Golly 2000' link from Golly Corner for this.
  15. Thanks to Sanjay Sircar for this, and also for noting that 'pollywog' for 'tadpole' survived in India until at least the 1950's.
  16. From The Tribune of India 13 nov 1999 in the article 'Crossing the line with Nehru' by Trilochan Singh Trewn.
    Spotted by Sanjay Sircar.
  17. 'Dutch' is itself a misspelling - the dolls were of German manufacture.
  18. As seen at Will's Golly Page.
  19. As an American critic of the CoS found when visiting the UK.
  20. Lynne Fauley Emery Black Dance from 1619 to Today 2nd rev. ed. (Princeton [NJ]: Princeton Book Co., 1988), p. 204.
  21. There's a whole web site about this!
  22. Norma S. Davis A Lark Ascends (NJ & London, The Scarecrow Press, 1992).
  23. The Museum website has an informative set of pages about Gollies. They don't however mention 'wog' at all.
  24. 'Catalyst', the magazine of the now deceased UK Commission for Racial Equality, 15 May 2007.
    The URL appears to point to an unofficial site archive.

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