Monday, October 29, 2012


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!


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