Dear Word Detective: Recently in reading a P. G. Wodehouse story I found him referring (twice!) to someone as “twiddling his fingers.” I always thought that one could only twiddle one’s thumbs. Did the British of Wodehouse’s era discover some new talent? And what does “twiddle” mean anyway? — FJW.
Oh, no, there are all sorts of things one can twiddle. As a child, I used to pass hours twiddling my toes, my fingers and my ears, sometimes simultaneously. And when I worked in an office, I mastered the art of twiddling a pencil like a miniature drum major’s baton, a pastime I truly enjoyed until my officemates began to wonder aloud if said pencil would fit up my nose. I still like to twiddle Brownie the Dog’s ears. I find this enormously entertaining but she doesn’t seem to appreciate it, even when I show her how funny it looks in the mirror. And no, I don’t plan to grow up anytime soon.
One of the things I love about the folks who run the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is their ability to lend an air of solemnity to definitions of even the silliest words in English, including “twiddle”: “To cause to rotate lightly or delicately; to turn (anything) about, especially with the fingers; to twirl; to play with idly or absently; also, to adjust or bring into some place or condition by twirling or handling lightly.” Is it just me, or does that make “twiddling” sound like something you’d actually need lessons to do?
The roots of “twiddle” are, thankfully, both simple and poetic. “Twiddle” is onomatopoeic (or “echoic”) in origin, the sound of the word itself intended to evoke the light, twirling action of “twiddling,” and (to quote the OED again) “intended to combine the idea of ‘twirl’ or ‘twist’ with that of trifling action, as in ‘fiddle,’ ‘piddle.'” In the case of “twiddling” one’s thumbs, the usual routine is to interlock the fingers of your hands while resting them in your lap or on a surface in front of you, and twirl your thumbs around each other. “Twiddling one’s thumbs” is such a universally-recognized expression of extreme boredom that it would almost certainly get you thrown off a jury if the judge caught you doing it.
“Twiddling one’s fingers,” however, is open to interpretation. Your thumbs are, of course, legally fingers, so perhaps Wodehouse simply meant the standard gesture of boredom. Then again, it is easy to add one’s index fingers to the mix, so maybe that’s what he meant. By the way, I have just now tried it with all my fingers simultaneously and I seem to have hurt myself, so there are, apparently, limits to “twiddling.”
Incidentally, “piddle,” to which “twiddle” is linked by the OED, meant originally “to fool around, to work ineffectually,” and is also “echoic” in origin. “Fiddle,” however, while also used to mean “to play with” or “to act frivolously,” was originally a perfectly serious synonym for “violin” and actually comes from the same medieval Latin root (“vitula”) as “violin” itself.