All thumbs and more.
Dear Word Detective: Having spent a moment here and there twiddling my thumbs, I recently became curious about “twiddle’s” origins. Your archive appears to have left this important issue unaddressed. The etymology dictionary says “twiddle” is of unknown origin and means “to trifle.” I have never trifled my thumbs! Not even once. From where “twiddle” and how did it get applied to thumbs? — Barry Longyear.
Hmm. Not once, eh? Sure about that? I must inform you that we have surveillance camera footage of you trifling your thumbs at a traffic light in Saskatoon in August of last year, you know. You seemed to be having quite a good time, trifling up a storm. Never been to Saskatoon, you say? Yeah, right. Nobody’s ever been to Saskatoon. It’s in Saskatchewan. In Canada. Like Baltimore with polar bears, I hear. Well, you’ll be visiting there shortly, Mister Thumb-trifler.
It is true that the Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com) lists “twiddle” as “origin unknown,” but we don’t throw in the towel so quickly around here. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces the verb “to twiddle” back to around 1540, when it first appeared meaning “to be busy about trifles,” the noun “trifle” here meaning “something of little consequence.” By 1676, “twiddle” had reached its modern meaning of, to quote the OED again, “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.” You really have to admire folks who can put that much energy into defining a word like “twiddle,” don’t you?
By 1846, the OED says, we had arrived at the phrase “to twiddle one’s thumbs,” meaning to rotate them around each other (usually with the other fingers of one’s hands interlaced) or, in a figurative sense, to idly waste time.
As to the roots of “twiddle,” the OED suggests that it is onomatopoeic or “echoic” in formation. We usually think of onomatopoeia as meaning that the word sounds like the thing it denotes, like the words “bang” and “whoosh.” But onomatopoeia can also suggest the look or action of the thing and even invoke other words. The OED suggests that “twiddle” might have been intended to combine the idea of “twirl” and “twist” with “that of trifling action,” as in “fiddle” or “piddle.”
Incidentally, the verb “to trifle” in this sense means “to play with,” but it originally, in the 15th century, meant “to cheat or deceive,” specifically by telling a false story, which, I understand, they frown on in Saskatoon.