Make Music and Carpe Diem,
Or, Etymological Fiddle-Faddle
The names of musical instruments are often loanwords, in English they are usually from Greek (via French intermediaries) or Italian. Sometimes their original forms are transparent. Thus the medieval wind instrument shawm goes back to Greek kalamos “reed”; nothing could be simpler. In other cases, the source of the foreign word remains uncertain. For example, though lute may be an Anglicized form of Arabic al ‘ud “the timber, wood; harp” (al is the definite article, as in alcohol and algebra) and the root of lyre (from Greek) may mean “praise,” hence “sing,” both derivations are debatable. Yet occasionally such names are native. One of them is harp.
The harp was already known to speakers of the Germanic languages in the early Middle Ages. Old English and Old Scandinavian poetry contains numerous references to it, and a well-preserved medieval harp has been excavated. The German and Dutch cognates of harp mean also “sieve,” “instrument of torture,” and “basket for grain.” If we assume that all those objects were made with gut-like strings, the musical instrument will align itself with them rather naturally: the lute is “wood,” whereas the harp is “(primitive) strings.” The harp produces dulcet music, but the verb harp (as in harp on one’s troubles) refers to the irritating effect of plucking the same string again and again and reminds us of the prosaic origin of the word in question. The etymology of harp is solid. It would have been even more solid if the relatedness of harp to Latin carpere “to pluck” could be shown. Carpere seems to have influenced the meaning of Engl. carp “find fault unreasonably and rudely; nag,” a verb borrowed from Scandinavian with the sense “boas,” and the Latin root carp- has been preserved in carpet, called this either from action in weaving or from the cloth being made from shreds, but the similarity between harp and carpere may be accidental. According to a well-known rule, when a Latin (or other Indo-European, non-Germanic) word corresponds to a word in Germanic, p goes over to f (as in father/pater), and k changes to h.(as in Gothic taihun versus Latin decem “ten”). In the pair Latin carp-/Germanic harp-, the initial sounds are perfect but the final are not: one expects f at the end of the English noun (compare the uncontroversial cognates: Latin carp-ere and Engl. harv-est “time of ‘plucking’,” with -v- from -f-). Ingenious attempts to explain away this irregularity have not convinced everybody. Be that as it may, Germanic harp- probably meant “pluck,” even if its affinity to Latin carp- is denied. The similar-sounding words for the harp in the Romance languages are of Germanic descent.
Another native name of a musical instrument is (as I believe) fiddle. The English verb fiddle (about) “make aimless or frivolous movements” first turned up in a text dated 1530; later fiddle-faddle “trifling talk or action” and faddle “caress; play, trifle” made their appearance in books. One may perhaps add fuddle “tipple, intoxicate,” related to German dialectal fuddeln “swindle; work sloppily,” to this group. In addition, fiddle-fuddle “hesitation, trifling,” fidfad “fussy,” and fiddy-faddy “trivial” have been attested. The obvious meaning of all of them is “move aimlessly or frivolously.” Fiddlesticks “nonsense, rubbish” and its synonym fiddle-de-dee are part and parcel of the fiddle-faddle batch. Nowadays the fiddlestick is called bow. In the past, the movements of the bow from side to side made people think of “fiddling,” which, according to my hypothesis, the name of the instrument. The most authoritative dictionaries trace the noun fiddle, which has cognates in all the Old Germanic languages except Gothic, to Medieval Latin vitula “fiddle,” the source of viola, but it is more likely that the Latin word was taken over from Germanic. In thinking so, I am almost alone. Since in this matter I disagree with distinguished etymologists, they will hasten to disagree with me. A seasoned fighter, I will take the lack of consensus in stride.
Fiddle and faddle are not isolated in English and the rest of Germanic. Numerous words beginning with f and ending in a consonant mean approximately the same as those two, most often “move back and forth,” which includes the results of such movements. Some characteristic examples are German fickfacken “run about aimlessly,” English dialectal fick-fack “nonsense; foolish, trifling sayings; whims,” and fickie-fickie ~ fyke-fack ~ fix-fax “fiddling, finicking, or tedious piece of work.” Like every word columnist, I regularly receive notes and queries either informing me that the ignominious English f-word is an acronym (the repertory of conjectures is impressive) or asking me whether I am aware of that fact. Fuck is not an acronym, and, in general, except for OK, hardly any well-established English word can be decomposed into “letters” (characteristically, OK does not conceal its lineage). From an etymological point of view, the four-letter verb, which seems to have been borrowed from Low (that is, northern) German at the beginning of the 16th century, means “move back and forth” and therefore belongs with fiddle, fick-fack, and the rest, designating movements that are fitful by nature, whether aimless, trifling, “finikin,” or not.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”