• A string instrument played with a bow (another term for a violin)
  • A dishonest act or instance of cheating or fraudulence (British slang)


  • To play a fiddle
  • To make small, quick, and often anxious movements
  • To putter around with; to make small fixes or changes
  • To pass time doing silly or pointless things


Even if you've never studied world history, there's a good chance you've heard of the callous and prodigal Roman emperor Nero, who "fiddled while Rome burned." The expression has a double meaning, referring both to an instance when Nero spent his time playing music while a fire savaged the city and also to the emperor's decadent, frivolous behavior in general, which was especially inappropriate given the struggles his empire was facing. Although history shows that Nero didn't actually play the violin (it hadn't even been invented yet), the phrase is a perfect example of two of the most common uses of the word fiddle.

Most of us are familiar with the musical instrument called a fiddle, although many prefer to think of it as a violin. Physically, the two are one and the same: a smallish, delicately curved wooden instrument with a hollow body and four strings stretched taut across a thin neck. However, the term you choose will largely depend on the style of music to which you're referring. While the instrument is generally called a violin when used to play more formal, often classical music, the term fiddle is appropriate in more casual settings. A musician is said to fiddle (in verb form) when playing more folksy, fast-paced music. So if you have a yen for the fiddle, forget the fancy restaurants and jazz groups; you might be more at home at a hoedown!

Besides its familiar place in the musical world, fiddle has several other handy uses as a verb. One common application describes the making of small, agitated movements. Often done unconsciously, to fiddle like this is essentially equivalent to fidgeting, and the meaning comprises any thoughtless playing, jiggling, twitching, or otherwise "messing around." Such fiddling often happens as a result of boredom, anxiety, or simply pent-up energy.

Another common use of the verb fiddle refers to the act of doing trivial work. To fiddle in this way usually indicates that one is making slight, often unnecessary adjustments or repairs. Such inconsequential work often results from an exacting eye for details and a fixation on perfection; perhaps just as likely, though, one might fiddle out of boredom. This might be the origin for another of the word's usages: fiddle frequently describes the act of wasting time with inconsequential busy-work. This meaning implies a sense of aimlessness; one who fiddles away his time is either bored out of his skull, is attempting to avoid something important, or is so utterly unoccupied as to have nothing whatsoever useful to accomplish.

Finally, British slang sometimes incorporates fiddle as a noun which refers to a dishonest act or a swindle. A fiddle might entail an executive embezzling from his company, or it might describe how a shady peddler sold you a pouch of "magic" beans. Although this usage might be unfamiliar to American speakers, it's important for everyone to beware of this type of fiddle!

Example: Eric's fingers were a blur when he played the fiddle.

Example: Unsatisfied with her science project, Jessie tried to fiddle with the arrangement of her papier-mâché molecules.

Example: Not wanting to fiddle away his precious day-off, Connor made a list of things he meant to accomplish.

Example: Jane tended to fiddle with her earring when she was nervous.

Derivative Words

Fiddler: This noun can describe someone who plays the fiddle, a tinkerer, or someone engaged in nervous movements or aimless activities.

Example: Everyone at the Irish Culture Festival commented on the skill of the band's fiddler.

Fiddled: This is the preterit form of the verb fiddle.

Example: Despite being retired, most afternoons, the old craftsman fiddled with pocket watches.

Fiddling: This form is used to describe when someone is currently playing the fiddle or engaged in trivial repairs, aimless activity, or restless fidgeting. Fiddling can also be used as a noun to describe the act of doing such a thing.

Example: "Stop fiddling with your watches and feed the cat!" yelled the old craftsman's wife.

Fiddles: This third-person present tense form of fiddle is used when a singular subject plays the namesake instrument or engages in any of the aforementioned actions.

Example: "He fiddles with that junk all day long," said the craftsman's wife to her fellow yenta.


Fiddle may have begun its life as the Medieval Latin word vitula, which describes a musical instrument with strings. This name is possibly a reference to the Roman goddess Vitula, a triumphant figure of gladness and celebration after victory, and it indicates the lilting sense of joy that an instrument like a fiddle can create. This humble beginning would spawn a variety of terms in several Germanic languages, including the Middle English fidel. The familiar fiddle first appeared in English during the fourteenth century, and its subsidiary usages as a verb (all of which in some way describe nervous or unconscious movement) is likely derived from the small, quick motions characteristic of playing the instrument.

In Literature

From Anton Chekhov's "Rothschild's Fiddle":

As Yakov played very well on the fiddle, especially Russian songs, Shahkes sometimes invited him to join the orchestra at a fee of half a rouble a day, in addition to tips from the visitors.

Here, fiddle describes the stringed instrument with which the character Yakov earns a small income.

From Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children":

"..and in 1660 Charles II of England was betrothed to Catharine of the Portuguese House of Braganza—that same Catharine who would, all her life, play second fiddle to orange-selling Nell."

Here Rushdie uses the idiom "play second fiddle" to describe the plight of Catharine as being less important to her husband than his long-time mistress. This idiom comes from the assumption of the second violin in an orchestra as playing less important role than the first one.


  • Twiddle your thumbs to fiddle the time.


Music, History, British, Labor Day

Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of fiddle. Did you use fiddle in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.