Saturday, June 20, 2020

Wild West Sayings We Use Today, Part 12

The latest installment in the Wild West Sayings We Use Today blog series is all about trifling talk, fishermen, seizures, and a startled person. Several of the expressions below merge two words or phrases. Join me on a new journey through the history of words. 

This post is brought to you by Janalyn Voigt.

Wild West Sayings We Use Today, Part 12


We don’t use this term in conversation much anymore. Perhaps you have heard it in cartoons, like me, to criticize trifling talk or a person engaged in such nonsense. 

The origin of fiddle-faddle is unclear. It may be a reduplication (a word changed for emphasis by repetition of similar sounds). In this case, the original word was either faddle, an obsolete word that once meant ‘to trifle,’ or fiddle in the sense of fussing with something. Whether or not that is how the phrase evolved, the two words do combine well to create the term’s meaning. An earlier version, fiddle-cum-faddle, was a bit ponderous. An abbreviated form, fidfad, has a nice ring, don’t you think? 

Historical Reference: Fiddle-faddle first showed up as a noun in The Decades, a collection of sermons by Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575). It also became an adjective a half-century later, although we hardly ever see that form today. The verb form followed in the 17th century.
Noun: I won’t listen to your fiddle-faddle another minute.
Adjective: Keep your fiddle-faddle opinions to yourself.
Verb: Stop fiddle-faddling.
Interjection: Fiddle faddle, Martha! Stop wasting my time.

Fish or Cut Bait

Fishing for the exact meaning of this phrase submerges us in murky waters. Some people use it to prompt another person to make a choice. Others might urge a coworker to focus on the present job or switch tasks. Still others use it as a spur to act or quit. 
Fish or cut bait originated in America from the mid-19th century fishing industry. Fishermen needed to decide which of them would fish, and who would cut the bait.

Historical Reference:
The earliest example I found is in the July 31, 1837 issue of the Oneida Observer (Albany, NY): “Politicians cannot shilli-shalli along now. They must either ‘fish, cut bait, or go ashore.’.” I wish we hadn’t lost the ‘go ashore’ part of this expression. It really helps us understand the meaning of ‘cut bait,’ the part where confusion enters. It’s clear from this early version that the options were to actively engage, support, or quit altogether.

Example: When it comes to proposing, are you going to fish or cut bait?

By Fits and Starts

You know that on-again, off-again craft project lurking at the back of your closet? Yep, that one. I apologize in advance for bringing it to mind, but it’s the best way to explain this phrase. Maybe you already knew the meaning, but if not, now you do. Anything sporadic happens by fits and starts.
'By fits and starts' evolved from two now-defunct British phrases that had similar meanings. ‘By fits’ (fitfully) originated around 1583, and ‘by starts’ (intermittently) goes back further to 1421.

‘Fit’ seems to have come from ‘fitt,’ an Old English word for a fight. During the 16th century, ‘fit’ defined an intense but short-lived attack of illness or another disorder. A century later, the word meant a seizure, a sense it retains today. The definitions of ‘fit’ that describe something the right size or that conforms to standards (fits in) probably derived from the same root word.

‘Start” has several meanings in English also. The one that pertains to our topic made an entrance early in the 15th century. It specified ‘a sudden and transient effort or movement.’ Use of ‘start’ for a beginning, so prevalent now, didn’t ensue until 1566.

Historical Reference: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘by fits’ first appeared in a 1583 translation of a sermon by John Calvin: “He doth not thinges by fittes as Creatures doe but he continueth alwayes in one will.”

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first written evidence of ‘by starts’ in The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587), in which the Scottish and Irish “performed by starts (as their manner is) the dutie of good subiects.”

The earliest use of ‘fits and starts, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is within a sermon given in 1620 by Robert Sanderson, an English theologian.

Who knew a simple phrase could hold so much history? I bet you won’t look at that half-finished craft project stashed in your closet the same way now.

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt fell in love with literature at an early age when her father read chapters from classics as bedtime stories. When Janalyn grew older, she put herself to sleep with tales "written" in her head. Today Janalyn is a storyteller who writes in several genres. Romance, mystery, adventure, history, and whimsy appear in all her novels in proportions dictated by their genre. Janalyn is represented by Wordserve Literary.

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  1. I've loved this series. Thanks for sharing. I use the second and third phrases (and may have to start using the first!)

    1. Hi Linda. Sorry for the late reply, but you are welcome! I use the last two phrases myself and am considering adding the first. I'm in favor of the fidfad variation. :)

  2. I love this series too! And I have heard and used all of these in more or less the right way! Thanks, Janalyn!

  3. You're welcome, Connie! I'm so glad to know you are enjoying this blog series as much as I am writing it. Sorry for the late reply.

  4. Interesting article on words some I actually used as a kid. Thanks for sharing.