Words: Fiddle

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The Independent Culture
Whatever you may think of William Hague, he has an important political advantage over Tony Blair. He has a sense of humour. His description last week of Mr Blair as "the Nero of Sedgefield, fiddling with the constitution while jobs burn" was certainly a bit contrived - you could smell the midnight oil in it - but there was no resisting that nice little pun on "fiddle".

Why, though, should the word fiddle have acquired so many different meanings? It seems to have started off as a perfectly straight-faced name for various sorts of violin. In fact, it was the only one we had for them until we got viol from the French in the 15th century and violin from the Italians a bit later.

Of course we all know that Nero, himself a notable control freak in his day, didn't play the violin while he watched Rome burning. His chosen instrument was a lyre. But a lyre hasn't got the frivolous connotations that a fiddle has, so a fiddle it was - and has been, in popular mythology, for at least 300 years.

But again, why should this eloquent instrument, which is capable of arousing the noblest passions, have given its name to so much that is contemptible, if not positively underhand? It seems unfair. No one takes the mickey out of oboists. Not even the loud bassoon, which some might say was a slightly comic instrument, has attracted as much scorn.

Well before Queen Elizabeth's time, people who toyed with their food were being accused of "fiddling" with it. Then there was "Fiddle!", an exclamation meaning nonsense, which was short for "Fiddle- faddle", (the OED dates that from 1577) or for "Fiddlesticks!", also Elizabethan.

It was rather later that fiddling became a criminal matter. Daniel Defoe was writing about people being fiddled out of their money in 1703; this was in a work entitled The Villainy of Stockjobbers. (He returned to the subject in his later tirade, The Anatomy of Exchange Alley.)

Brewer's Phrase and Fable says the expression "as fit as a fiddle" is probably an allusion to "a street fiddler, who sways and swings about as he saws energetically with his bow". Perhaps so, but this doesn't explain why it used to be said of gloomy people that they had a face as long as a fiddle. I think Brewer was guessing here.

Well, we can all guess. My own is that much of this talk of fiddles and fiddling may have had little to do with the musical instrument and that another source needs to be found.

Or if there was a connection, it was because of a particularly English sort of philistinism which tended to despise any fancy trilling and posturing and general mucking about. (Only an Englishman could have spoken of "Handel and his lousy crew".)

But I don't set much store by such theories. They certainly don't go anywhere near explaining why, according to Jonathon Green in Slang Down the Ages, "fiddle" was a vulgar 19th-century term for copulation.