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I’m looking for anything published before 1977 which mentions pillywiggins (or any similar words). They would be fairies or just small creatures associated with flowers.

These creatures have appeared in some modern fantasy works, and are usually claimed to be from folklore, but their first appearance that I know of was the 1977 book A Field Guide to the Little People. This book says they were from Dorset and had been “popularised.” Because of that, I’m thinking that they might have appeared in a fantasy book (or maybe even a TV show or magazine) popular in the 60s/70s. It could have been for children, and might have been set in or published in Dorset, England.

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    There's an entire article on their etymology and origin here; writinginmargins.weebly.com/home/what-are-pillywiggins. It suggests that it might be a corruption of Oberon's courtiers from the 1657 The English Parnassus (Periwiggin, Periwinckle, Puck) or Pigwiggin, the "fairy knight" from the 1627 poem Nymphidia
    – Valorum
    Jan 13, 2019 at 20:18
  • And a follow-up article on the same subject; writinginmargins.weebly.com/home/… - Apparently at least one person recalls their grandmother mentioning the word, potentially prior to 1977; "My late grandmother, originally from Wimborne, Dorset, would bemoan those pesky Pillywiggins whenever something went missing or awry."
    – Valorum
    Jan 13, 2019 at 20:25
  • If there are no answers to be found on here, might be worth a try over on ELU. Nothing to find on Google books though.
    – Pam
    Jan 14, 2019 at 14:09
  • The OED does not have an entry for it either.
    – OrangeDog
    Aug 24, 2021 at 18:20

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I actually wrote the Writing in Margins pillywiggin analyses (starting here), and posted this question as one of several attempts to gather more information. I did receive one comment from someone whose grandmother had talked about pillywiggins, but that was all.

I found a pre-1977 usage of the word pillywiggin, but it is arguably a coincidence. “Pilly-wiggin” appeared in a 1917 American newspaper article titled “Speed Up Your Needles; Soldiers Need Warm Garments” (Louisiana's Crowley Signal, December 14, 1917).

[T]hose who are pilly-wiggin along with their knitting, thinking most anytime will do; and "it isn't very cold yet;" and "after Christmas I'll try" . . .

It is a verb (pilly-wig), apparently used to mean “procrastinating.” “Pilly-wig” or “pilliwig” was a nonsense word in late 19th/early 20th-century America, the earliest example being an 1871 comedic short story, "The Fate of Mr. Pilliwig” by N. P. Darling. This does not narrow much down for a British fairy called pillywiggin.

I went back to the source, and after going through line by line, I think Dorset may have been a red herring the whole time. The sources listed in the Field Guide's bibliography mention few Dorset fairies, and no Dorset flower fairies. For example, Keightley’s Fairy Mythology has pexies or colepexies which serve as bogeymen, and the article “Dorset Folk-Lore” in the Folk-Lore Journal describes malicious fairies coming down the chimney.

There is one other possible lead. The full description of pillywiggins in A Field Guide to the Little People is extremely short:

The popularized Dorset Fairies, Pillywiggins, are tiny flower spirits. (p. 159)

It calls the pillywiggins “flower spirits.” The exact phrase “flower spirits” appears in one of the sources: Katharine Briggs’ The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. Judging by details in the Field Guide's "English Fairies" section (e.g., fairies have vanished from the English Midlands in modern times), Briggs was a major source.

The Midland fairies... are generally small and beautiful, lovers like the rest of music and dancing, nearer to being flower spirits than spirits of the dead. I say 'are', but perhaps it would be truer to say 'were', for, so far as one can judge, there are no active fairy observances nor living beliefs in the Midland Counties. The last recorded Oxfordshire fairies are said to have been seen going down a hole under the Kingstone at the Rollright Stones. Shakespeare and Drayton were Warwickshire men, who knew the small, flower-loving fairies… (Briggs, p. 109-110 in the 2002 edition)

Briggs is arguing here that William Shakespeare and his contemporary Michael Drayton were inspired by fairy legends from their hometowns. Drayton wrote the famous poem Nymphidia, with the character of the fairy knight Pigwiggen, also spelled Pigwiggin.

Pigwiggen was mentioned in quite a few of the Field Guide's sources and would definitely count as popularized (for example, Thomas Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and The Tolkien Reader). Another possibly relevant line from the sources: Katharine Briggs’ Anatomy of Puck mentions “literary fairies of the Pigwiggen type."

It already seemed like a good possibility that “Pillywiggin” was a garbling of “Pigwiggen” (like the variants Periwiggin and Pigwidgeon) but the Dorset connection was a stumbling block for me. My current theory is that the line should read:

The popularized Drayton Fairies, Pigwiggins, are tiny flower spirits.

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