English

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A woman playing a fiddle.
John Brown's a-Hanging on a Sour Apple Tree
 
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Etymology

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From Middle English fithele, from Old English *fiþele, from Proto-West Germanic *fiþulā, from Proto-Germanic *fiþulǭ (fiddle), of uncertain etymology. Some contest that the Germanic terms are borrowed variations of Late Latin vitula (see viola); others contest that the word has a separate origin within Germanic languages, and still others believe that the Late Latin term for the stringed instrument is a borrowing from Germanic as a change of Latin t to Germanic þ is highly improbable, yet Germanic þ to Latin t is well documented (see troop, Teobaldo, etc.). Cognate with Old High German fidula (German Fiedel), Middle Dutch vedele (Dutch vedel, veel), Old Norse fiðla (Icelandic fiðla, Danish fiddel, Norwegian fela, Swedish fela).

The change from /ðl/ to /dl/ in modern English is regular; compare staddle, swaddle (in brothel, it was prevented; see that entry for discussion).

Pronunciation

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Noun

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fiddle (plural fiddles)

  1. Synonym of violin, a small unfretted stringed instrument with four strings tuned (lowest to highest) G-D-A-E, usually held against the chin, shoulder, chest or on the upper thigh and played with a bow; the position of a violinist in a band; (usually proscribed) any of various bowed stringed instruments, particularly those of the violin family when played non-classically.
    When I play it like this, it's a fiddle; when I play it like that, it's a violin.
  2. (figurative) Synonym of clown: an unserious person entertaining a group.
    • 1693, John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, page 208:
    You would not have your Son the Fiddle to every jovial Company.
  3. (figurative) Unskillful or unartful behavior, particularly when showy and superficially pleasing.
    1. (chiefly US, dated slang) Synonym of scam, a fraud or swindle.
      • 1947 June 22, People, p. 4:
        Says Bevin: 'I want peace... and we shan't get it unless we deal with one another as friends. I will be a party to no fiddles.'
      • 1959 Sept. 4, The Spectator, p. 297:
        I know you'll think this is one of my fiddles. At my last parish we raffled a horse and trap,... a clothes horse and a mousetrap.
    2. (slang) Synonym of workaround, a quick and less than perfect solution for some flaw or problem.
      That parameter setting is just a fiddle to make the lighting look right.
  4. (especially nautical) Any rail or device that prevents items from sliding off a table, stove, etc. in rough water.
    • 1962 September, P. Ransome-Wallis, “The Talgo trains of Spain”, in Modern Railways, page 188:
      The meal is served on special trays which slot into the arms of airline-type seats of the passenger coaches. The trays have fiddles for each of the plates, cups and glasses, and the crockery is so well-designed that it is seldom any of the contents get spilled.
  5. (UK slang, obsolete) Synonym of arrest warrant.
  6. (UK slang, obsolete) Synonym of watchman's rattle.
  7. (UK slang, obsolete) A trifling amount.
    Done at a fiddle.
  8. Something resembling a violin in shape, particularly:
    1. (biology) A dock (Rumex pulcher) with leaves supposed to resemble the musical instrument.
    2. A long pole pulled by a draft animal to drag loose straw, hay, etc.
    3. A rack for drying pottery after glazing.

Usage notes

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The distinction between violins and fiddles is typically contextual and cultural. The same instrument is considered a violin when playing classical music in formal settings, a fiddle when playing folk or country music, and variously described in other settings (such as jazz and rock) depending whichever term seems more appropriate to the speaker. Use of fiddle long predates the 16th century development of the modern violin but its use for other string instruments is almost obsolete; its use for other instruments of the violin family usually requires some explanatory adjective, such as bass fiddle.

Derived terms

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Descendants

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  • Swahili: fidla

Translations

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Verb

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fiddle (third-person singular simple present fiddles, present participle fiddling, simple past and past participle fiddled)

  1. To play the fiddle or violin, particularly in a folk or country style.
    • 1625, Francis [Bacon], “Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms and Estates”, in The Essayes [], 3rd edition, London: [] Iohn Haviland for Hanna Barret, →OCLC:
      Themistocles [] said he could not fiddle, but yet he could make a small town a great city.
  2. To fidget or play; to idly amuse oneself, to act aimlessly, idly, or frivolously, particularly out of nervousness or restlessness.
    Stop fiddling with your food. Either tell me what's wrong or just eat.
    • 1530, John Palsgrave, Lesclarcissement, page 549:
      Loke you fydell nat with your handes whan your maister speketh to you.
    • 1663 July 23 (date written; Gregorian calendar), Samuel Pepys, Mynors Bright, transcriber, “July 13th, 1663”, in Henry B[enjamin] Wheatley, editor, The Diary of Samuel Pepys [], volume III, London: George Bell & Sons []; Cambridge: Deighton Bell & Co., published 1893, →OCLC:
      [] talking, and fiddling with their hats and feathers []
    • 1961 November 10, Joseph Heller, “The Eternal City”, in Catch-22 [], New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, →OCLC, page 425:
      Yossarian went along in Milo Minderbinder's speeding M & M staff car to police headquarters to meet a swarthy, untidy police commissioner with a narrow black mustache and unbuttoned tunic who was fiddling with a stout woman with warts and two chins when they entered his office and who greeted Milo with warm surprise and bowed and scraped in obscene servility as though Milo were some elegant marquis.
  3. (informal) To cheat or swindle; to commit fraud.
    Fred was sacked when the auditors caught him fiddling the books.
  4. (informal) Synonym of tinker (to make small adjustments or improvements).
    Coordinate term: fettle
    I needed to fiddle with these settings to get the image to look right.

Derived terms

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Translations

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Interjection

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fiddle

  1. (obsolete) Synonym of fiddlesticks.
    Oh, fiddle. I left my whip in the stable.

References

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