“Fit as a fiddle” – we often use this phrase to compliment somebody about their health. However, we often don’t even think about the phrase’s origin or why a fiddle would fit. So, where does the phrase originate?
The origin of the phrase “fit as a fiddle” dates back to 17th-century England. It’s unknown who invented the phrase and when exactly it came into use but since the 19th century, “fit as a fiddle” has meant good physical health.
It’s not enough just to know and use phrases we were taught. It’s also important to understand their origin and why they carry such meaning today, and that’s where I come in. In this article, I’ll discuss the origin of the phrase fit as a fiddle and the importance of “fiddle” in the phrase.
What Does It Mean if Someone Is “Fit as a Fiddle?”
Nowadays, when someone is “fit as a fiddle,” it’s either a compliment or good news. Both of these instances are always connected to somebody’s physical health and strength. This is clearly because of the word “fit,” which for us signifies taking care of your body, especially by exercising.
Therefore, when used as a compliment, the phrase fit as a fiddle means that somebody’s in good physical form.
An Example: A: Hey Joe, how have you been? I haven’t seen you for a while.
B: Hey! I’m great. I’ve been going to the gym for the last six months.
A: You really look as fit as a fiddle!
On the other hand, we use the phrase as positive news that somebody’s doing fine with their health. This is usually used when somebody asks about an older person’s health or with somebody who’s recently been in a hospital.
An Example: A: Hello Lucy, How are you? I heard your dad was in the hospital. Is he okay?
B: Hello, he’s fine. He went to the hospital for hip surgery, but he’s doing well now. You know him; he’s as fit as a fiddle.
Fit as a Fiddle: Original Meaning
When the phrase was first recorded about 400 years ago, fit as a fiddle didn’t have the same meaning that it does today. In the 17th century, the phrase signified that something was done appropriately or in good spirits.
Back then, the word “fit” was not synonymous with good health. It meant what “fitting” means for us today – i.e., something that is wholly appropriate for its intended purpose.
Only towards the end of the 19th century did the use of the word “fit” change to what we know today. Now, “fit” has almost completely lost its connection with the previous sister word, “fitting.”
Moreover, the word “fiddle” signifies a string instrument, especially a violin. Therefore, when we paraphrase fit as a fiddle to its original meaning, we get something along the lines of suitable as a violin.
I know it still doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I’ll discuss what this phrase might symbolize later on. Before that, it’s important first to understand how to properly use the phrase in our day and age.
How To Use the Phrase Fit as a Fiddle Today
Since fit has a different meaning than it did in the 17th century, we should mention how to use it in the 21st century. Sometimes, people misuse this phrase because they connect the “fiddle” with real violins (not metaphorical ones).
Therefore, you should never comment on somebody’s instrument playing as “fit as a fiddle.” Your intentions might be good, but the phrase simply isn’t used for those situations.
Also, the term fiddle sometimes has negative connotations as it can be insulting to violinists who find it to be reductive to their instrument. This wasn’t the case when the phrase first appeared.
Then, a fiddle just referred to most string instruments. With time though, the fiddle has come to be associated with a more rustic setting which many trained violinists try to dissociate from.
Another reason why many people are unsure how to use this phrase has to do with its form. Do we say fit as a fiddle or as fit as a fiddle?
Both forms are correct and can typically be used interchangeably. However, the latter form is much more common.
This is a general rule for comparing things, and this phrase is no exception. Still, this isn’t the biggest “mistake” out there, and all but the strictest grammarians should be fine with either form.
What Is the Origin of “Fit as a Fiddle”?
We don’t know who or when first used the phrase fit as a fiddle. However, we have some written records of the phrase, and all of them date back to the early 17th century. Because of that, it’s probably safe to assume that the phrase came into existence around that time.
The first mention of this phrase appears in Thomas Dekker’s The Bachelor’s Banquet from 1603. In this instance, however, Dekker didn’t use the phrase as we know it today. Instead, he used “as fine as a fiddle.” This might allude to the physical attractiveness of the female character in the story since he’s comparing her to a violin that has a unique shape.
The second source where the phrase fit as a fiddle appears dates back to 1616. It’s Haughton William’s English Men for My Money or A Woman Will Have Her Will. In this play, William uses the original phrase “as fit as a fiddle.”
In 1678, John Ray’s book of proverbs also mentioned this phrase, which means that by that time, it has already entered into standard English lexicon.
Why is Fiddle Used?
Understandably, the “fiddle” part of the phrase can be quite confusing. After all, why would a fiddle be fit?
This is why it’s important that we know the origin of this phrase. It’s true that fit as a fiddle doesn’t make much sense in today’s usage of being physically fit. However, when we look back in time, we can start to see why people used this phrase to describe an appropriate situation.
First, string instruments, especially violins, became one of the most popular instruments during the 17th century. Before this period that we call baroque, music consisted of numerous instruments, all playing with the same intensity.
In the 17th century, it became popular that one instrument led the others in creating harmony (homophony), and that instrument was usually a violin.
Therefore, people in the 17th century saw the violin as a valuable instrument. That’s where the “appropriate as a violin” phrase comes from.
Another reason for the popularity of string instruments (fiddles) is their sound. It’s no secret that violins, even today, enjoy a level of awe. The same happened in the 17th century. People simply loved the sound violins made because it was suitable for every occasion. They could play a happy or a sad tune, hence their appropriateness (fit).
Lastly, another reason a fiddle became the main symbol of this phrase is not just the sound the instrument produces but also the sound of the word itself. Both fit and fiddle start with the same letter, and people in the past loved to form proverbs using what we now call alliteration.
The two Fs create a catchy phrase that wouldn’t have the same effect if it were another word starting with a different letter.
The phrase fit as a fiddle has been used since the 17th century, but back then, it meant that something was suitable or appropriate. Over time, however, the word “fit” came to mean “being in good physical health,” and the phrase fit as a fiddle got a new meaning — a healthy person or habits.
Although “fiddle” means string instruments, most usually a violin, we don’t use the phrase to describe somebody’s wonderful violin playing. The term “fiddle” was used originally because:
- It was a popular instrument.
- The word starts with the letter F, just like “fit” (alliteration).
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Alliteration Definition & Meaning
- Collins Dictionary: Fit as a Fiddle definition and meaning
- My Landrover: What Instruments Were Popular in the 17th Century. Instrumental Music of the 17th Century
- English-Grammar-Lessons.com: Fit as a Fiddle – Meaning, Origin and Usage
- Know Your Phrase: Fit as a Fiddle (Phrase)
- The Free Dictionary: Fit as a Fiddle
- Macquarie Dictionary: Fit as a Fiddle