Q From Joan Collinson: A guide told us while we were touring a ship in California that fiddlesticks came from the wooden bars that stopped crockery sliding off tables in rough weather. He said that officers used to play silly games with them, hence the name. Is this true?
A It’s another of those inventive stories peculiar to tour guides, I’m afraid. There’s an ounce of truth in it because the protective slats, bars or rails around the edges of shipboard tables are indeed called fiddles. But to leap from this undisputed fact to its being the origin of fiddlesticks is too great for most minds, however athletic.
A fiddlestick was undoubtedly at first a violin bow. (Both fiddle and violin come from the Roman goddess of joy, Vitula, who gave her name to a stringed instrument; fiddle came down to us via the Germanic languages, violin through the Romance ones.) Fiddlestick is recorded from the fifteenth century, and Shakespeare used a proverb based on it in Henry IV: “the devil rides on a fiddle-stick”, meaning that a commotion has broken out; the imagery is obviously related to the broomstick of a witch, and perhaps there’s some thought behind it of the noise that a fiddle might make if the devil got to play it.
At some point in Shakespeare’s lifetime, it seems fiddlestick began to be used for something insignificant or trivial. This may have been because a violin bow was regarded as inconsequential or perhaps simply because the word sounds intrinsically silly. It took on a humorous slant as a word one could use to replace another in a contemptuous response to a remark. George Farquhar used it in this way in his play Sir Henry Wildair of 1701: “Golden pleasures! golden fiddlesticks!”. From here it was a short step to using the word as a disparaging comment to mean that something just said was nonsense.
There is a link between the violin bow and ship’s table senses of fiddle, in that the word has been used in several fields for various wooden contrivances with a more or less fanciful resemblance to a violin and that this is the source of the ship usage. But otherwise, ship’s fiddles and the retort are unconnected.