Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Word and An Expression

I find that, occasionally, a word will come up in conversation and start bugging me about its origin. What I find when I search for origins is often fascinating. Just the other day a word and an expression did that. Eavesdrop and fuddy-duddy.

Eavesdropping is the act of secretly listening to the private conversation of others without their consent, as defined by Black's Law Dictionary. This is commonly thought to be unethical and there is an old adage that eavesdroppers seldom hear anything good of themselves...eavesdroppers always try to listen to matters that concern them.

Ancient Anglo-Saxon law punished eavesdroppers, who skulked in the eavesdrip of another's home, with a fine; the eavesdrip was also sometimes called the eavesdrop. Eavesdrop also means a small low visibility hole near the entrance to a building (generally under the eaves) which would allow the occupants to listen in on the conversation of people awaiting admission to the house. Typically this would allow the occupant to be prepared for unfriendly visitors.

Early telephone systems shared party lines which would allow the sharing subscribers to listen to each others conversations. This was a common practice in rural America which resulted in many incidents and feuds.

Eavesdropping can also be done over telephone lines (wiretapping), email, instant messaging, and other methods of communication considered private (If a message is publicly broadcast, witnessing it does not count as eavesdropping.). VoIP communications software is also vulnerable to electronic eavesdropping by via malware infections such as Trojan.


early 17th century: back-formation from eavesdropper (late Middle English) 'a person who listens from under the eaves', from the obsolete noun eavesdrop 'the ground on to which water drips from the eaves', probably from Old Norse upsardropi, from ups 'eaves' + dropi 'a drop'

That was interesting. But then I came across this snippet that I found fascinating -

Hampton Court Palace outside London was the palace of King Henry VIII of England. In the eaves of its Great Hall, small faces are carved into the oak beams which lean at an angle of 45 degrees to the ground. These are known as 'Eaves Droppers'. Henry was known to be a strong ruler and often put spies in crowds of people to listen in to conversations. He wanted his staff (who slept in the Great Hall between banquets and would lie on straw looking up at the eaves) to know that he or his people would be listening at all times.



A stuffy or foolishly old-fashioned person.


If any term sounds old and English, it must be this one. As so often, intuition is found to be inadequate as fuddy-duddy appears to be of American origin, possibly via Scotland, nor is it especially old. The first record that I can find of it is from the Texas newspaper The Galveston Daily News, 1889:

"Look here; I'm Smith - Hamilton Smith. I'm a minister and I try to do about right ... I object to being represented as an old fuddy-duddy."

That usage - without any accompanying explanation - seems to suggest that the readership would have been expected to have been familiar with it. That is quite possible, there are several citations in American newspapers from the end of the 19th century that relate to a pair of fictional wags called Fuddy and Duddy. A string of their rather weak gags was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript. Here's an example from a November 1895 edition:

Fuddy: So Miss Dandervecken is going to marry an Englishman. A lord, I suppose?
Duddy: Well, no, not exactly: but I understand that he's often as drunk as a lord.

Whether or not the expression 'fuddy-duddy' was already known and the names were taken from it, or whether it was the other way round, we can't now tell. The coincidence in the dates of the arrival of the two characters and the phrase does suggest that there was a connection of some kind.

Duddy was a Scottish term meaning ragged - duds having been used to refer to rough tattered clothes since the 15th century. That usage continued for some centuries and is still heard occasionally, notably in the popular 19th century traditional song The Blackleg Miner:

He grabs his duds and down he goes
To hew the coal that lies below,
There's not a woman in this town-row
Will look at the blackleg miner.

Fud, or fuddy, was a Scots dialect term for buttocks. In 1833, the Scots poet James Ballantyne wrote The Wee Raggit Laddie:

Wee stuffy, stumpy, dumpie laddie,
Thou urchin elfin, bare an' duddy,
Thy plumpit kite an' cheek sae ruddy
Are fairly baggit,
Although the breekums on thy fuddy
Are e'en right raggit.

The full-on Scots dialect in that sentimental, Burns influenced rhyme is difficult to translate precisely. The gist of the meaning is:

Poor scruffy little lad, bare and ragged, your wet belly and red cheeks are swollen and the trousers on your buttocks are torn.

There is a British term - 'duddy fuddiel', which is also recorded from around the same date. William Dickinson's A glossary of words and phrases pertaining to the dialect of Cumberland, 1899, has:

"Duddy fuddiel, a ragged fellow."

There may be a link between 'duddy fuddiel' and 'fuddy-duddy' but, as they don't mean exactly the same thing, we can't be certain.

One thing we can be sure about; that the cartoon character Elmer Fudd inherited the name from the phrase. 'Fuddy-duddy' was in general circulation in the US well before the character was created in around 1940 and the expression accords with his old-fashioned and obsessive temperament.

In a rather sad sequel to the Boston Transcript's role in the coining of 'fuddy-duddy', Time magazine reported in 1939 that a survey commissioned by the paper found that, "the most frequent word used by advertisers to describe the paper was fuddy-duddy". The Transcript ceased trading soon afterwards.


  1. Great post Stan. Man, you are BRIGHT early in the morning!

    Just a there a word for what we hear when someone talks loudly on their cell whilst in a public place and whom we don't want to hear but can't help but hear without their consent?

    I know it isn't eavesdropping because the conversation is not secretly listened to and is actually forced upon us.

    There must be a better word than overheard.


    If i were to tell someone else what i heard then i guess i'd be a busybody or at least nosy or a gossiper; probably the latter since i'd be relaying only half of what was being discussed.

    Well, i'd rather be that than a fuddy duddy.
    Isn't it funny that everybody knows what a fuddy duddy is, even a small child or a foreigner knows what it means.

    Heaven forbid that i should ever be one although i know i am at times!

  2. Good question! I'll see what I can find.