Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
When it comes to celebrations in ancient Rome, Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry, gets a lot of the attention. He was Rome’s answer to the Greeks’ Dionysus, though stripped of some of the more hedonistic rituals that had developed in Dionysian cults.
There was, however, a lesser known Roman goddess for when there was really a good reason to celebrate. She was Vitula, the goddess of joy and victory. It’s believed that Vitula’s name is the source of the Latin verb vitulari “to celebrate, be joyful.”
Now one thing you might expect at a joyful celebration is a little music. Appearing in the Medieval Latin period, around the middle of the first millennium A.D., we find the noun vitula, based on vitulari, as the name of a stringed instrument. Now we’re getting somewhere, musically speaking.
As Latin-speaking clergy and culture spread northward, the vitula went with it, but each culture found a way to make it more their own — both the instrument and the word. It became, for example, the Old High German fidula, the Dutch vedel, and the Old Norse fiðla. In Old English, with evidence of its use dating back to the 12th century, it was called a fiðele — that odd-looking d in the middle is an eth, an Old English letter representing the th sound in words like leather and wither. The eth, however, disappeared, which is why, in the mid- to late-14th century, we start to find references in English to a string instrument called, first, a fithele, and later a fydyll, fedele, and fidel. This became the Modern English word fiddle.
Meanwhile, string instrument development continued elsewhere in Europe, too, and it took the name with it. The Renaissance was a period of great advances in many disciplines, including music. Spain in the early 1500s saw the development of a plucked string instrument, and the vitula name became the Spanish vihuela. Spanish and Italian musicians alike also began experimenting with running bows across the strings to produce sound. The Italians called their bowed string instrument the viol.
But we’re not quite to violins yet: These Renaissance viols were made in different sizes and ranges, but they were all played with the instrument either on or between the legs. That meant that the musicians had to be sitting down to play. In part to allow more movement during play (remember, the instrument name still links back to joyous celebration), people began altering the smaller viols so they could be played while held on the arm.
The original on-your-leg instrument came to be called the viol de gamba, literally “viol of the leg,” and it was considered a more courtly, prim instrument. The newer version, held on the arm, was called the viol de braccio “viol of the arm.” It was this newer version that continued to be developed, eventually leading, in the second half of the 1500s, to the instrument called the … viola.
Almost there. The viola came first, and then a smaller version was developed, the violino, a word which is simply a diminutive of viola. (It also bred what we think of as the violin family today, including the violoncello, usually just called a cello; and the double-bass, which in the 16th and 17th centuries was sometimes called violone, though that was a rather imprecise term.)
So the words fiddle and violin both trace back to a common source, but fiddle has been in the English language several centuries longer than violin. However, the languages of the ostensibly more proper and educated continental languages were often privileged over English, a language of common folk. So it was with fiddle, which found its way into terms related to idleness and nonsense, such as fiddlesticks, fiddle-faddle, and the verb to fiddle with.
Today, the violin and the fiddle are the same physical instrument, and the use of one word over the other is simply a matter of personal and cultural preference.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now
As a non-musician, I always got a chuckle out of these definitions:
If you are selling it, it is a violin.
If you are buying it, it is a fiddle.
I remember an excellent (classically trained) violinist who accompanied a great folk singer. They often played Irish songs and music in our local Irish pub.
Occasionally I would hear him shouting at a poor unfortunate who had dared to speak of his “fiddle” instead of calling it a “violin”.
Nobody ever told him that the Irish word for “violin” is “fidl”.
Nola: I had never heard that wiping/not-wiping thing before. I recognize that it’s a lighthearted stand-in for the stereotype of the staid, conservative classical violinist versus the folksy, rough-and-tumble fiddler, but when I was researching this article, I came across a video of a performance of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and sure enough: rosin dust all over the top of Charlie Daniels’s fiddle.
Nonmusical folks who ask me which I played. To avoid getting into technical talk I would satisfy them by slyly saying I played both. When playing professionally I played violin in orchestras and string quartets. When in Kentucky I played fiddle with my dad who was a fine fiddler in his bluegrass band duly noted in his obituary. Dad & I had a standoff: if you wiped the rosin off your instrument you were a violinist. If you let it collect until it formed a snowy cap on top of the instrument you were undoubtedly a fiddler. I wiped: he didn’t.
Part of the reason fiddlers eschewed gut strings is that they would soften & go out of tune in outdoor humidity. Dad liked the metal-wound metal strings I sent him. In high school I played his fiddle in order to keep my nicer fiddle in fine shape until I attended the Cleveland Institute of Music. Wizened violinists like my mentor in L.A. often referred to their fiddle tho I never heard Jascha Heifetz refer to his Strad that way. :o)
Thank you for the good information. So many people thi k that they are two different instruments. I live in the mountains in eastern Ky and it hard to get people to understand this
As someone with a degree in violin, who makes a living playing fiddle, I can assure you that in music circles, while they might be the same physical instrument, violin and fiddle are used to describe different playing techniques that achieve drastically different outcomes. I use the word violin when I mean classical music and fiddle to refer to all the other genres and depending on the context, jazz can go either way.
Fiddle players generally use steel strings, while violin players use gut or synthetic strings.
Fiddle players DON’T use vibrato.
Really interesting word origin here with the fiddle vs. the violin. I was just writing of my appreciation for 18th and 19th century composers works in another feature here. I took violin lessons a long time ago. Mom wanted me to be in the school orchestra and I picked out the violin ahead of time, so I was pretty good in the 4th and 5th grades.
Being a former English teacher, she NEVER called it the “fiddle”, and I never did either. I understand why, but America is kind of a ‘house-that-Jack-built’ nation compared to the (long established) European countries with our own style where the more informal ‘fiddle’ is just fine along with the violin, y’all.