Published: Wednesday September 21, 2011 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday August 5, 2013 MYT 7:22:09 PM

Fiddler on the roof

How to play (with words) on the fiddle.

THERE’S a fiddler on the roof ... of my neighbour’s house. Now, in the words of Tevye, If I were a rich man (woman), or If I had a small fortune, there would have been a fiddler on my roof too, especially since the tiles cry their heart out onto select spots in my study, my favourite hangout, when it rains.

Anyway, this roof guy decided me on this – to fiddle (mess) with the word. A fiddly task, I’ll have you know. Not unlike the laborious experience of our MOE co-ordinator when she has to manually put in place all italics should they mysteriously lose their form somewhere in transition.

The dictionary (COD) states that fiddle is colloquial, not literary; derogatory, not complimentary. That notwithstanding, I find its sound (try saying it, again!) – both musical and linguistic – delightful. Don’t you just love diddling with Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle ... ? I still do, especially when I cannot quickly find my favourite spoon (yes, call me fiddly/fussy) to go with a dish on the run!

Oh, Fiddlesticks! I first picked up this nonsensical expression in my growing years in school, from a nun (yes! Bless her soul, she’s now long gone) who used it whenever she disagreed or became upset with something we said or did. I loved the sound of it, took to it immediately and then couldn’t stop myself from showing off at every opportunity available, out of her hearing, of course. Colloquial and derogatory, or not, fiddle alone commands multiple meanings in varying contexts, and together with its “affiliates”, the fiddling family of expressions show remarkable fidelity in terms of contribution to popular language use.

Fiddle as a noun commonly describes a musical instrument of the viol family; as a verb it describes an approach to the violin, with a fiddlestick here doing colloquial service for a bow. Should someone remark that you have a face as long as a fiddle it means you have a dismal or gloomy expression. Now, how’s this for a contrast discovered from the Net? A rare complimentary meaning attached to fiddle-face, if you like. William Morris (of Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins) calls it “an interesting fiddling (italics mine) side note.” It records an unheard phrase found in the etymologist Charles Earle Funk’s Heavens To Betsy! And Other Curious Sayings (1955): “to have one’s face made of a fiddle (italics mine) was to be exceptionally good-looking.” This was attributed to fiddles having such pleasing qualities “as to invite complimentary comparisons to humans.” Note, he says “made of ...”.

Could that be the only positive note? Unless of course, we also recognise fiddling to mean tinkering with something with the intent to fix it. In that sense my sons are tireless fiddlers! So is their father, with knobs and dials of any kind. Sigh. Now, if your doctor pronounces you as fit/fine as a fiddle, rejoice, you’re in good shape, to strike a positive note.

Decidedly, fiddle/fiddler-derived expressions convey more unflattering notions than otherwise. Why play second fiddle elsewhere when a derogatory role so becomes them!

Apart from lending itself to mean purely awkward, tiresome, nonsensical and trifling matters, the expression pleads guilty to serious offences like cheating, falsifying documents, swindling (diddling – old use), nay, all manner of dishonest acts, including fraud. For example, if a reporter fiddles with the facts, he is guilty of meddling or tampering with information.

Additionally, to be at/on the fiddle is to be engaged in an illegal or fraudulent undertaking. If in the workplace someone gains a promotion through an act of deception, he is deemed to have fiddled his way to that position.

And if like me, you fiddle away the morning doing the least of things because you feel listless and lethargic on a particular day, you have simply wasted or squandered the morning. Would that be so bad as what Emperor Nero did in the (rumoured) story – fiddling while Rome burned? It means being engrossed in unimportant matters when one should be attending to grave problems. It bears thinking.

Turning now to more trifling matters, have you come across some people who have a habit of fiddling with (also twiddling – another lovely word, no?) their fingers or thumbs? And ever so deftly with objects like a pen, pencil ... or some ladies, with their hair. If this fidgety fiddling serves no apparent reason, it could simply be a nervous habit while waiting for something to happen.

Tuning in to music, especially of the hypnotic kind, some may know of the infamous super-villain of DC Comics, Bowin aka The Fiddler, who uses his excellent violin skills to create a powerful field force of musical vibrations to hypnotize others for his acts of villainy! I also found out that there’s a popular pub named The Mean Fiddler in Sydney, New York, and London that boasts good food and music, fiddle included I’m sure, to go with the mean (meaning “very good” here) food.

I’ll hang up my fiddle with a note on two interesting quotes. One by an unknown author: Friends are like fiddle strings, they must not be screwed too tight. You have been warned.

But then again, being one who enjoys seeking out all things contrary, here’s a counter-equal that I picked up recently from a book by the late Bishop Fulton Sheen: The violin strings, if they were conscious, would complain when the musician tightened them, but this is because they do not see that the sacrificial strain was necessary before they could produce a perfect melody. And that’s also no fiddle-faddle (a reduplication meaning “nonsense” – old use) because true friends will take the stretch.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle


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