During the 18th century, Ambrose Phillips was a don of St Johns College, Cambridge, and in addition gained some recognition as a poet. But his poetic style and political ambitions incurred the wrath of musician and poet Henry Carey (who wrote ‘Sally in our Alley’) and was possibly the first person to sing ‘God Save the King.’
Carey thought Philips’ poetic style was half-witted. So he set out in 1725 to create a poem that would satirise it with an ingenious series of rhyming couplets – a stinging series of childish epigrams. Carey came up with namby-pamby as a word-play on the name Ambrose Philips, and entitled his poem ‘Namby Pamby – A Panegyric on the New Versification’.
The poem was so successful that Philips was henceforth known as Namby Pamby, and Alexander Pope used the term in his satiric epic The Dunciad.
Since then the term has been used to label anything perceived as childish, ineffectual or insipid.