Fiddlesticks and Lexicography

by Apr 22, 2015Linguistics8 comments

Fiddlesticks Wikipedia

Fiddlesticks (Wikipedia)

What do you do if you’re not sure what a word means? Wait for it… You look it up in The Dictionary. So far we’re together, right? This is chicken-crossed-the-road-to-get-to-the-other-side level stuff.

But what if The Dictionary disagrees with The Dictionary? I looked up fiddlesticks the other day (long story), and this is what I found:

Merriam-Webster: “nonsense—used as interj.”

American Heritage: “Interj. Used to express mild annoyance or impatience.”

The two dictionaries agree that fiddlesticks is an interjection, but their two definitions are clearly not the same.

I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard anyone use fiddlesticks the way Merriam-Webster defines it; I’ve heard only the sense given by the AHD. You accidentally drop the box of nails ten feet off the step ladder into the mud and, especially if you’re a conservative Christian and therefore have a comparatively limited available lexicon of annoyance interjections, you say, “Aw, fiddlesticks!”

One guess: maybe this difference between dictionaries reflects regional variation—maybe English-speakers outside the US go with those upstarts Merriam and Webster (who do they think they are!?), while the rest of us remain true to our American Heritage. But I don’t know.

I do know that fiddlesticks provides a small example of an important truth: dictionaries are imperfect tools made by (highly trained, generally reliable, but limited) people. The dictionary can be wrong. Not capital-R wrong, just wrong for your situation. In some cases, the dictionary you hold might lead you astray. If I say “fiddlesticks” and you think I’m telling my scattered nails they’re nonsensical, you misunderstand me. You can say I’m wrong and point triumphantly to Merriam-Webster, but I’ll just whip out my trusty AHD (I always take it with me on stepladders) and we’ll be back where we started.

Dictionaries are actually not the ultimate court of appeal for what a word means. Dictionaries are merely records of careful reading and listening. They’re asking, “What do people typically mean when they use fiddlesticks?” So a great deal depends on this question: to whom are they listening? There is no law in the Bible that English-speakers in Florida and English-speakers in Minnesota—or in Singapore (where English is an official language)—must mean precisely the same thing by fiddlesticks. Regional variation (and that’s just one reason for lexical variation) is one of the things that makes language interesting. You say soda, I say pop.

You disagree? Then we’ll have to settle this the old-fashioned way: my dictionary’s bigger than your dictionary!

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  1. Layton Talbert

    You are a funny and gifted writer, my friend. To stir the pot a bit more, OED (which is way bigger than your dictionary) backs up M-W: (3) an exclamation equivalent to Nonsense! (with several examples for your linguistic education, including one R. L. Stevenson). So perhaps M-W is reflecting the remnants of an Old World usage that, as you suggest, still characterizes some regions. To back up meaning (3) is meaning (2) [humorously] something insignificant or absurd; often substituted for another word in derisively repeating a remark (again with several examples, not least of which are Dickens, Thackery, and Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue [3rd edition]). But note the adverb “derisively,” which certainly suggests potential for branching off toward a simple expression of “mild annoyance or impatience” (as some of the examples confirm).

    Then, even more alluring is an example under meaning (1) the bow strung with horse hair with which a fiddle is played. Shakespeare (Henry IV): “The devil rides upon a fiddlestick” (phraseologically defined as “here’s a fine commotion”).

  2. Layton Talbert

    BTW, I took a highly scientific sampling of perceptions on the meaning of “fiddlesticks.” I asked my wife what it meant. She immediately came up with BOTH the AHD and M-W definitions. I daresay you’ve heard the M-W meaning more than you’re aware. (To which you might reply, “Fiddlesticks! I’ve never heard it used that … way.”)

  3. Claudia Anderson

    With Shakespeare’s meaning in mind, I can see how both “mild annoyance” and “nonsense” can easily fit the meaning of “fiddlesticks.” Have you ever tried to disentangle a pile of bows, especially ones with loose and dangling strings? Besides, I actually have heard the word used both ways. I associate the M-W definition with usage in the UK, although it may be used here that way regionally.

    Really, when it comes to expressions of annoyance, or bewilderment, or confusion, usage varies regionally. I grew up using a slang word that in the South means “bewildered, flustered, completely stumped, dumbstruck,” in the presence of a New Englander, and he was totally scandalized. He took it as an obscenity and told me, “Never say that!” I looked up the definition, and sure enough, it included some very embarassingly vulgar meanings I’d never heard before coming from my background.

  4. David Lowry

    I just checked the biggest dictionary of them all ( and it says it’s an informal term for a violin bow. So obviously, M-W and AHD are both wrong. 🙂

    On more serious note, I think I’ve heard M-W more than AHD and it’s the meaning that I would have probably come up with had I not already read your post.

    On a much less serious note, perhaps your linguistic exposure is limited due to your watching and playing football as a kid instead of reading great literature like the Hardy Boys ( Or maybe you just read the wrong ones (

  5. Mark Ward

    Claudia, now I just have to know that word is! =) You would be performing a public service by informing my readers—so they don’t inadvertently cause the same offense you did.

    Yes, Dr. Talbert, I wondered if I had possibly misunderstood a number of people over the years who were saying, “Nonsense.” I’m on the lookout for it now…

    Dave, there does seem to be a progression in the senses much like the one Claudia describes.

  6. Brian Collins

    Interestingly enough, I immediately thought that M-W was correct and AHD was wrong. I was caught off guard when you went the other direction. Upon reflection, I don’t think don’t recall ever hearing someone say “Fiddlesticks.” I think I’ve only encountered it in print. Probably in the Hardy Boys. I have indeed read the Secret of Skull Mountain several times and never did read (to my recollection) the Mark on the Door.

  7. bethyada

    Not that I hear it much but I would go for “nonsense”. New Zealand would tend to follow UK usage. A solution is to use thefreedictionary which gives a range of meaning from different dictionaries.

    Not certain what Claudia was referring to? Possibly “buggered,” though that would mean “exhausted” here, not “bewildered” but who knows about the southern US. Don’t they call all soda Coke?

    Have you seen this map of US variation in dialect?