Thursday, March 3, 2016
There was no one called Nelly Duff, or at least, the origin of the term does not seem to relate to any individual person. Nellie was a common abbreviation for Janelle, Helen, Ellen, Petronella, Chanelle and Cornelia in the 19th century. The term became synonymous with a lowly servant or skivvy (maid) and was also used to describe a timid person or nervous Nellie. A new start at a factory, shop or office would often be inducted through sitting by Nellie, or learning by watching a not too clever person who knew the ropes but who could be relied upon not to inculcate bad habits. In the US, ‘nelly’ could was also a slang term for an effeminate male or homosexual.
A Wet Nellie in Liverpool described a heavy bread and butter pudding that can be cut like a cake.
In other parts of the country this might be referred to as plum duff (plumb pudding). In the 19th century another sense of duff in Scotland meant “useless; rubbish; or counterfeit.” This is thought to be taken to the US by Scottish settlers.
Prior to the 19th century there was an old English saying ‘not on your puff,’ meaning “not on your life; never. ” Puff meant “breath” and so “breath of life”, life itself. Many people believe the two disparaging words ‘nellie’ and ‘duff’ were conveniently partnered just to make the rhyming Cockney Slang.
Example in use would be, a bounder may ask a village girl to remove her clothes which is usually met with the indignant reply. “Not on your Nelly Duff!”