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I'm reading some 1948 strips from the comic "Pogo". In a dialogue I found the sentence

"You gone whup the opposition like they is ol' tilly birds!"

Easy-to-understand intentional mispronunciations aside (people who read "Pogo" know the characters speak in a, let's say, strange way), I can't seem to find any meaning for the word "tilly" apart from the first name, which I think isn't appropriate here.

The context is the election of a new sheriff for the swamp the characters live in (which mocks the real-life U.S. presidential elections of 1948, where Truman won).
Can the word be related to a political pun? Or simply a modification of "little" or "tiny" or "silly"? Or is there a kind of bird called "tilly bird"?

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  • There are no references to either a tilly bird or the plural form tilly birds in the entire Google Books corpus, so I think I can confidently say the cited usage has no meaningful currency. It could perhaps be an allusion to A Merry Christmas: And Other Christmas Stories by Louisa May Alcott, where a girl called Tilly comes across a "magic" bird. Apr 18 '16 at 17:57
  • Can you include a link to the exact strip you are referring to? Apr 18 '16 at 17:58
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    @AlanCarmack No, I'm reading a printed book. I tried googling for "Pogo 1948-10-28" and the like but nothing relevant pops up.
    – SnailMan
    Apr 18 '16 at 18:02
  • I'd guess it was a modification of silly. This is just a guess, but from the sound of things, a guess is the best we're likely to get.
    – Tim S.
    Apr 18 '16 at 18:37
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    @SnailMan: It seems Walt Kelly's Pogo has definite "southern-US" connotations. Allowing for lisps, "s" is close to "th", and given Jamaicans routinely say "t" instead of "th", it's not much of a stretch to suppose that some "rustics" in that general area might say "t" instead of "s". And even if they never actually did, it could be a popular misconception that they might, which is all OP's context needs. Apr 18 '16 at 21:07
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It is likely an instance of "swamp-speak": 'essentially a rural southern U.S. dialect laced with nonstop malapropisms, fractured grammar, "creative" spelling and mangled polysyllables such as "incredibobble" and "hysteriwockle," plus invented words such as the exasperated exclamations "Bazz Fazz!," "Rowrbazzle!" and "Moomph!"' (according to Wikipedia).

Pogo is set in the Okefenokee swamp, but it is written by an Irish-American from the Northeast, and many strips are social and/or political satire. The language is part of the art of the strip and uses lots of wordplay like puns, poetry, malapropisms, and literary allusions. So much of that strip is dependent on what was going on in the world at the time a particular strip was written, that to fully understand it you might need to look at American newspapers from that month in history to see what was going on.

I have found some evidence that "tilly hawk" is another name for a sparrow-hawk, but I don't think that is a good fit with the context. It could be an allusion to the name of someone or some group of note during the 1948 elections that the author is mocking. Clay pigeons are used in skeet shooting, so given what Alan found in his answer, those clay targets could be what "tilly bird" alludes to. This is complete speculation - as FumbleFingers mentioned in the comments, it isn't a meaningful phrase outside of that one strip, so I personally wouldn't dig too deep trying to understand it exactly.

I would interpret it as the opposition getting beaten so badly it's like they didn't put up a fight, i.e. it was like shooting fish in a barrel.

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    +1 for it isn't a meaningful phrase outside of that one strip, so I personally wouldn't dig too deep trying to understand it exactly. In retrospect I doubt it's got anything to do with Louisa May Alcott's "Tilly" character (most likely OP's cited speaker couldn't even read, so would be unlikely to know anything about that! :). But I wouldn't rule out the possibility that the actual writer (Walt Kelly) was influenced by Aristophanes' The Birds (effectively, a political satire depicting the birds as too dumb to implement "democracy"). Apr 18 '16 at 21:18
  • Despite the fact that he's from the Northeast, I think he did a pretty good job of capturing the Southern dialect. Apr 18 '16 at 21:51
  • Which Southern dialect @PeterShor? It varies quite a bit depending on what immigrant group was dominant in the area. In my opinion, Pogo's language is a broad caricature used as a canvas for Kelly's wit. If you hear a lot of Southern folk talking like that around you, they're probably trying to fool you into thinking they're ignorant so they can take advantage of you. The Okefenokee swampers supposedly used Elizabethan phrases and syntax well into the 20th century, but I'm not from around those parts, nor particularly familiar with Elizabethan syntax, so I can't say.
    – ColleenV
    Apr 18 '16 at 22:37
  • @FumbleFingers Walt Kelly was very adept with language - I wouldn't have put it past him to work that sort of allusion into the strip. Now I really want to read that series of strips!
    – ColleenV
    Apr 18 '16 at 22:53
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Tilly is an adjective that means

Abounding in, or of the nature of, till or tenacious clay.

and till means

A term applied to a stiff clay, more or less impervious to water, usually occurring in unstratified deposits, and forming an ungenial subsoil. Originally a term of agriculture in Scotland.

Also... "In general,..a hard clay of any sort, which in a very slight degree admits the passage of water, and is impenetrable by the roots of plants."

(Oxford English Dictionary)

But without other context, it's hard to know what tilly birds means in the Pogo strip.

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  • Fact is, the sentence is itself entirely out of context. They don't make any reference at all to birds afterwards and the pun of the strip is unrelated to that panel. I think that "Tilly" must have been a funny mispronunciation (in "Pogo" style) of whatever synonym existed for "little" or "tiny" at that time. But what could it be?
    – SnailMan
    Apr 18 '16 at 19:11

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