Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fiddling Around

Why, queries a correspondent who lives not far from the spot on which William the Conqueror defeated Harold in the Battle of Hastings, do we say someone is “fit as a fiddle”?  Sometimes I do feel like a bit like a Stradivarius myself—that is one that has been around since about 1690. Being fit as a fiddle, on the other hand, means to be “in excellent form or condition.”  What makes a fiddle so fit?  Why couldn’t you be as hale as a horn or as glad as a glockenspiel?

Well, first we need to find out where fiddle, as a word for a violin, comes from.  Via Old English, Old Norse, Middle Dutch and German, the word ultimately sprang from the Latin vidula, a stringed instrument, which in turn came from the name Vitula, the Roman goddess of joy and victory.  So from its earliest origin, the fiddle was associated with feeling good.

The earliest known use of the English phrase “fit as a fiddle” was in William Haughton’s 1598 play Englishmen for My Money, in which the term refers to an agreeable state of affairs. Not until 1889, in a work called Fifty Years on the Trail by Harrington O’Reilly, does the Oxford English Dictionary have a reference to the phrase in its current usage: “I arrived at my destination feeling fit as a fiddle.”

Wordman Charles Earle Funk has the funky idea that the phrase came about because the shape, form, and musical tone of violins were so pleasing that they invited complimentary comparisons to human beings.  Well, maybe.  Another source, who for reasons of uncertainty wishes to remain anonymous, offers the dubious explanation that the original phrase was “fit as a fiddler” and referred to the stamina of musicians who played hours upon end for dances without a break.  This was before the days of the musicians’ union, of course.

Be that as it may, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou wishes it to be known that he is as unfit as an untuned ukulele and has the following off-key verses to prove it:

            FIDDLERS THREE

            Sir Yehudi Menuhin
            Sounded quite genuine
            But not very hilarious
            When he played a Stradivarius.           

            Stephane Grappelli
            Hated celli,
            But he was always smilin’
            When he heard a violin.

            Jack Benny
            Could play any
            Song under the moon,
            Out of tune.

And one more, for good measure:

            Joshua Bell
            Sells very well,
            Because everyone expects he
            Will always look sexy.

And if you want a rhyme for Itzhak Perlman, you’ll have to come up with it yourself.

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