An eminent drama critic for one of the nation’s most distinguished daily newspapers (well, perhaps I stretch a point or two) recently suggested that an overblown touring production of that overwritten musical Jekyll & Hyde might have benefited from the “soft-peddling” of certain lurid elements. It is natural to assume that he meant “soft-pedaling,” the usual idiomatic phrase, derived from the left-hand pedal on most pianos, which mutes the sound, meaning to “underplay or de-emphasize.”
On mature reflection, however, I am willing to admit that “soft-peddling” might be equally apt, implying a “soft-sell” rather than a “hard-sell” approach.
Whichever the critic intended, pedal and peddle are often confused in contemporary usage. Just for the record: pedal, from the Latin pedalis, is a “lever or treadle, usually pressed by the foot, to activate a mechanism on a musical instrument or other mechanical device (such as a bicycle).” The word first appeared in print in the seventeenth century.
Peddle is an older word—fourteenth or fifteenth century—and is a back-formation from peddler, which derives from the Middle English pedder, meaning a “person who travels about with wares to sell.” A ped is a “pack or basket.”
Piddle, meaning either to “act in a trifling way, dawdle, dally, or toy” or, informally, to “urinate,” probably is a corruption of peddle, dating from the eighteenth century.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is a piddler of great renown, and one can view the results of his piddling hereinbelow:
Never piddle in a puddle,
Or try to treadle while astraddle,
And don’t coddle as you cuddle
And canoodle in your saddle.
In a huddle never doodle
With a poodle who can waddle,
Do not diddle with a noodle.
And don’t dawdle as you toddle.
In the middle of a muddle
Please don’t meddle with a paddle,
Never addle as you fuddle—
Just hit the pedal and skedaddle!