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Issue 3

August 3, 1998
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Sometime in the 10th century CE, a new musical instrument appeared in Europe, the violin. At first, it was used mostly in church music and was known by either of the Latin names vitula or vidula.  As the instrument came to be used in secular music it acquired local names. For some reason, northern languages retained the d/t but the romance languages lost it. Thus, the Old English called it fithele up to 1200, which became fidele in Middle English (by 1398). In Old High German it was fidula and in Old Norse it was called fithla, but in Italy it became viola and in French it was first vielle and later viole. Violin entered English in 1579 from the Italian violino, which is a diminutive of viola.  Thus we see that the refined violin and the earthy fiddle are, fundamentally, the same word. 

Curiously enough, the verb fiddle (as in "Don't fiddle with the controls") does not derive from the action of a fiddler's fingers but from the Old Norse fitla, meaning "to touch (with the fingers)". Just to complicate matters, vitula may be related to the Latin word vitulari 'to be joyful' or, on the other hand, it may actually have been borrowed from the same Germanic roots as the Old Norse fitla.

The contemptuous term fiddle-faddle is unrelated to fiddling. Rather, it is a reduplication of the obsolete verb faddle meaning "to trifle (with)". Such exclamations as fiddle-sticks and fiddle-de-dee are believed to derive from fiddle-faddle.

There is Welsh reel called "Ffidl-Ffadl" (pronounced "fiddle-faddle") which is often played on the fiddle but Welsh for fiddle is crwth (rhymes with truth).


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Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Matthew Reynolds:

Myself and a colleague have just moved from the United Kingdom to Phoenix as part of a company move. Today, I just had a very confusing conversation with an American woman. Apparently, you don’t have the word fortnight (meaning ‘two weeks’) in the U.S.  So my colleague and I got to talking about this and we thought “what does fortnight actually mean?”   Any ideas?

Why certainly we’ve got some ideas. Fortnight is basically a contraction of 'fourteen nights'. Time was measured in nights, rather than days, in Anglo-Saxon England, and in Old English, fortnight was feowertiene niht. It later became fourteniht, and by the 13th century it was fortnight. Its cousin, sennight, or ‘seven nights’ (one week) was used into the early 20th century.

While this word was in use during the days of colonial America, it did not become a part of American English.


From Jen:

Can you please find the origin of the word god for me? Incidentally, I was amused to learn that religion can be traced to a meaning of "return to bondage".

The word god seems ultimately to mean "that which is called", coming from the Indo-European root *ghut-, which is likely related to such words as Sanskrit havate and Old Church Slavonic zovetu, both meaning "call".’ As you can see, then, god is not related to good, as some certainly claim. Its Germanic relatives are Swedish/Danish gud, Dutch god, and German gott.

There are some terms containing the word god whose origins are equally interesting: God’s acre, meaning "a cemetery", comes from German Gottesacker "God’s seed field", which is where the bodies of the dead are “sown” with the expectation of resurrection (17th century). Godsend (19th century) comes from God’s send (17th century), an alteration of the Middle English goddes sand   "God’s message, dispensation, or ordinance". Finally, Godspeed (15th century) comes from God speed, meaning "may God prosper one". It is similar in evolution and meaning to good-bye.


From Ian Harding:

I was wondering if you had any information on the word iota. Any help would be appreciated.

First, iota refers to the Greek letter i. It attained the meaning of "least particle" by the 17th century, and this was due to the practice of medieval scribes using only the dot of the i (known as a jot, also from iota) to represent the letter (e.g., a dot over an n would represent in). The noun jot "least part or point" arose in the 16th century, and the verb jot "set down in briefest form" found its way into English in the 18th century. All forms of jot have their origins in iota.

As I have told you what the dot of an i is called, I should mention that the cross of a t is called a tittle !


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