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Q From John Haigh, South Africa: Where does fuddy-duddy come from?

A Most dictionaries say they don’t know where this term for an old-fashioned, narrow-minded and pompous person comes from. It first appears in mainstream texts at the beginning of the twentieth century, with very little clue as to where it comes from. Internal repetition has certainly helped its popularity, as it has with dilly-dally, helter-skelter, tittle-tattle, willy-nilly, and dozens of others.

There is one hint to where it originated: a glossary of the Cumberland dialect published in 1899 contains an entry for duddy fuddiel, a ragged fellow. Fuddiel seems to be a dialect form of fellow, while duddy is a Scots term meaning “ragged”, which turns up in Sir Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian in 1818 and in John Galt’s Annals of the Parish three years later: “But it was no more like the true play of Shakespeare the poet, according to their account, than a duddy betheral, set up to fright the sparrows from the peas, is like a living gentleman” (betheral is actually a Scots version of the word beadle, but here seems to be Ayrshire dialect for a scarecrow).

What seems to have happened is that duddy fuddiel became inverted and changed into fuddy-duddy. How this happened, or why the sense shifted from somebody ragged to somebody old-fashioned, is quite unclear. There might be a clue or two in the sounds: fuddy sounds like an amalgamation of fussy and faddy (recorded from early in the nineteenth century) and duddy is close in sound to daddy. As it happens, faddy daddy is a fine reduplicated phrase in its own right, which I submit to the English-speaking world to use or ignore as it sees fit. These associations may have helped its acceptance.

Or perhaps not: nobody can say for certain.

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Page created 07 Oct 2000