Lexicon Valley

A Brief History of Fiddling and Diddling

This post originally appeared on Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing.

When you’ve already started saying fuck but realize you’re within earshot of delicate sensibilities, fiddle (or fiddlesticks!) is a convenient last-minute mincing. An old word, from fidula in Old High German, fiddle has, since its birth as the name of a stringed instrument, taken on a host of meanings that semantically overlap with fuck to a surprising degree.

The word fiddle is much more than just a string instrument.

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

It didn’t take long after the noun appeared for fiddle to become a verb. Fiddling, involving a lot of dextrous finger movements, came to describe mindless, frivolous manual manipulation. (Now compare Stop fucking with the radio! with Stop fiddling with the radio!)

The manipulation became metaphorical, and the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation of to fiddle to mean to cheat or to swindle is from Thomas Dekker’s 1630 play, The Honest Whore: “There was one more that fiddled my fine Pedlers.” Often used with out of or into, this sense of fiddle is now used mostly in the U.K. From this Telegraph article about Barclays bank’s tax evasion:

He was all but accused of secretly cooking the books at Barclays and using the venerable institution and a dose of alchemy to fiddle the poor people of Britain out of millions of pounds of taxes.

(Compare “He was all but accused of secretly cooking the books at Barclays and using the venerable institution and a dose of alchemy to fuck the poor people of Britain out of millions of pounds of taxes.”)

The OED’s fifth (and final) definition of fiddle as a verb very much overlaps with fuck but seems oddly vague for a dictionary:

5. slang. “To take liberties with (a woman).”

What does that mean, exactly? “Taking liberties” could be anything from being presumptuously familiar to, well, sexual assault. The supporting quote is from James Shirley’s 1639 comedy, The Ball:

Fiddling Ladies, you Molecatcher.

It’s possible this entry simply hasn’t been updated in ages. Supporting this theory is that there’s absolutely nothing in the entry about this sense being applied to children.

Within the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWbE), some variant of “kiddie fiddling” makes up almost 1 percent of the instances of “fiddl*” in the database, and the use of fiddle to mean molest had certainly gained currency by the time The Who released Tommy in 1969, as we learn from the scene with Uncle Ernie:

When I first encountered the “Fiddle About,” it took me a while to figure out why it sounded a little odd to my North American ear. I’m more accustomed to a different—but closely related—word, seen in this scene from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia:

The U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand prefer fiddler to describe a child molester, whereas Canada and the U.S. are partial to diddler.

As a word, diddle isn’t quite as old as fiddle, although as a sound it was (and is) prominent in Gaelic lilting. Diddle has many meanings as a verb—several of which overlap with those of fiddle—but they come from a few different sources. Like fiddle, diddle can also mean cheat or swindle, and this definition likely originated from Jeremy Diddler, the conman in James Kenney’s 1803 play Raising the WindDiddle can also mean “to walk unsteadily, as a child; to toddle”; “to jerk from side to side”; and “to copulate or have sexual intercourse with”—these definitions likely evolving from the dialectaldidder, meaning “to tremble or shake.”

The OED attests the sexual sense in 1879 with the titillating start to a limerick:

There was a young man from Toulouse
Who thought he would diddle a goose

… and then leaves us hanging.

He hunted and bunted
To get the thing cunted,
But decided it wasn’t no use.

Although the OED and Merriam-Webster have more explicitly defined diddle as copulate (the sexual sense of fiddle doesn’t appear in Merriam-Webster at all), once again, neither explicitly mentions the word as it is applied to children. It’s sometimes used to refer to masturbation and consensual sex with an adult (from 2012—“CIA Director David Petraeus resigned for diddling his biographer, Paula Broadwell”), but, based on search results in GloWbE, it’s just as often applied to child sex abuse. A relatively early example comes from E.V. Cunningham (Howard Fast) in his 1966 novel Helen:

You’re some cheap Polack hooker that was tossed out of a parochial school for diddling little boys.

But the usage picked up steam in the 1990s, in parallel with allegations of sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic Church.

Is there a difference between fiddling and diddling? Going on etymology alone, one could argue that fiddling is more handsy, whereas diddling explicitly involves genital penetration, but usage doesn’t bear that out:

From Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934):

He may not have fucked her at all, but she may have let him diddle her … you never know with these rich cunts what they might expect.

From Stern: A Novel by Bruce Jay Friedman, Jack Richardson (1962):

I figure we get a few beers and, later, diddle her boobs.

The merger of the “Jeremy Diddler” diddle and the “didder” diddle can lead to some entertaining out-of-context reading, as in this quote from Moby-Dick:

Thank him heartily; but tell him it’s against my principles to drink with the man I’ve diddled.

And Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay in 1850 about swindling, called “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences.” A choice quote:

Diddling, rightly considered, is a compound, of which the ingredients are minuteness, interest, perseverance, ingenuity, audacity, nonchalance, originality, impertinence, and grin.

As I was doing research for this post, the more I thought about it, the stranger it was to me that we casually throw around euphemisms like kiddie fiddling and kiddie diddling for something as heinous as child sex abuse, all without batting an eye. Do the rhyme and alliteration prove irresistible for making light of a heavy topic? Fiddler and diddler sound flippant and could be seen to demean the perpetrators, but do they also trivialize their acts? What do you think?