September 29, 2000
Kerry McNeil wrote:
Having read today's WOTD [happy as a clam], another curious phrase occurred to me: fit as a fiddle. "Happy as a clam at high tide" always made perfect sense to me, but what is it about a fiddle that is so fit?
We may never know. Fit as a fiddle, defined as 'being in good health; in good shape', is yet another idiom about which cautious etymologists write "origin unknown," or "origin obscure," or just "?." More daring students of language have posited a couple of theories, but they appear to be pure speculation.
One such conjecture suggests that the old street fiddlers, sawing away energetically with their bows, would have had to be very robust in order to continue playing their music animatedly hour after hour. However, not only do I find bothersome the notion that the fitness in the saying slid mysteriously from the musician to the instrument, but I was unable to uncover a single citation of "fit as a fiddler." Surely if that were a transitional phrase, it would have left some record. On the other hand, "fiddle" can mean "fiddler," as in "He's second fiddle."
A more plausible idea, although one that is equally without tangible proof, is that fiddles were so precious and highly regarded that their owners, who depended on them to support themselves, cherished them and handled them with great care. Related to this assumption is the theory that it was the great and skillful violin makers themselves who provided the fitness. But there is no sign of any form like "fit as a Strad."
I was about to stun the etymological world with my own theory, but the dates simply don't work. It seemed to me that if you were as fit as a fiddle, you might also be "in fine fettle" (See Word of the Day article fettle.) "Fiddle" and "fettle" are very close phonologically, and it would be easy for someone unfamiliar with "fettle" to confuse it with "fiddle." Also, an alternate form of fit as a fiddle, is (or was, according to the OED) fine as a fiddle, the word "fine" is shared by the "fettle" and "fiddle" phrases, and the meanings couldn't be much closer.
However, "fettle" as a noun, meaning 'dress, state, or condition', did not appear until the mid-1700s, although the verb originally meaning 'to shape or prepare' is attested some 400 years before that. Fit as a fiddle appeared around 1616, more than 100 years earlier than the noun that is preserved today only in "in fine fettle." So I guess the fiddle phrase could not have come from the fettle one. Fiddle-de-dee.
Fine as a fiddle is rare today. In the nineteenth century it meant either (1) 'unusually well dressed' or (2) 'healthy'. From Putnam's Monthly Magazine: "I had been some time discussing my supper. . . , when my friend Jenkins, of New-York, walked in. He was in his usual travelling costume, as fine as a fiddle, with silken vest, a dress coat of the last fashion, immaculate white kid gloves, and a pair of French varnished boots (1853). From Harper's New Monthly Magazine: At that moment Miss Dolly entered. 'Ah! bon soir, Mademoiselle. How do you feel after the exertion of last night ?' 'Very well, thank you; and how is my escort?' replied she. 'Fine as a fiddle,' said I" (1866).
Fit as a fiddle is still in use--not without awareness that it is a stock phrase. From an August 2000 issue of Africa News: "There have been many other instances when Zimbabweans have felt that Hunzvi had finally met his match. These have included numerous court appearances over a range of charges, including that he raided the war veterans' coffers and claimed disability allowances from the state when the man is--pardon the cliche--as fit as a fiddle." [Note that the bold print is part of the quote.]
I suspect this simile survives in spite of the fact that it is a cliché because of its alliteration. All those "f" and "short i" sounds. It tumbles trippingly off the tongue.
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