Fiddlesticks, Footsies and Spoons

Stern. Reserved. Strict. Perhaps even judgmental or cold.

So she appears in this photograph from an indeterminate time and an unknown place, but as she herself might have said, appearances can be relieving [sic].

To her cousins, she was a caution.  To my mother, whose great-aunt she was, Rilla was just slightly dangerous, a force to be reckoned with, a strange, self-possessed woman whose refusal of rules and wicked sense of humor made her a favorite among the children.

She returned the children’s affection, although she often scandalized more conventional relatives with her baby-sitting techniques. Confronted with a passle of bored children, she was capable of sending them to the back yard with a stack of 78 rpm records and a hammer, essentially saying, “Have at it.” From what my mother recalled of the unfolding events on one such afternoon, “It was fun.”

Rilla never married, famously acknowledging she might have done so had marriage not necessitated the presence of a man in her life. Decades later, a pair of cousins agreed it wasn’t so much men-in-general whom she found offensive. She simply didn’t want anyone telling her what to do. Given that preference, I never understood her fondness for the Ouiji board or her willingness to consult it when decisions were necessary, but inconsistencies are the stuff of life.

Like another of my favorite great-aunts, Rilla was creative and fiercely independent. She lived in her own house and supported herself by weaving, but she left her mark through language. She was our own Mrs. Malaprop, and her sayings have lived on through generations.

Occasionally my mother would shush me by saying, “Don’t be silly. That’s just a fig newton of your imagination.” The strange – and amusing – figure of speech was one she had learned from Aunt Rilla.

It was Rilla who introduced her to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Grables, Rilla who gossiped about the distraught neighbor who’d gone “bersmerk”, and Rilla who insisted on substituting “bosom” for “breast” at the Sunday table.  If fried chicken was on the menu and you wanted a piece of that lovely, succulent white meat, you asked for “bosom”.  I thought the word sounded far worse than breast and raised some alarming mental images. My mother agreed, but went on to explain the wisdom of doing in Rome as Rilla commanded.

Any woman capable of referring to chicken bosoms with a straight face had to have other euphemisms in her arsenal, and Rilla did. “Fiddlesticks!” was a favorite, and I heard it often enough in childhood to embed it in my own vocabulary.

“Fiddlesticks!” was useful when a cake fell in the oven, or if someone discovered the jello mold in the refrigerator five minutes after everyone shoved back from the dinner table. If my mother looked up to see rainclouds gathering above still-wet laundry on the line, I might hear a triple “fiddlesticks” echoing across the yard as she rushed out to the rescue.

One day I asked her, “Why ‘fiddlesticks’?” “I heard it growing up,” she said. “Aunt Rilla liked to say it, and I got used to using it. It was a nice, inoffensive cuss word.”  After a few minutes, she added, “But it’s really shorthand.” 

“Shorthand for what?” I asked. “A nice, long, roll-off-the-tongue cussword substitute,” she said. “Fiddlesticks, footsies and spoons. I have no idea what it means.”

I didn’t know, either, but I made good use of the shorter version myself. Every time she heard me say it – “Fiddlesticks!” – Mom would smile and say,”Your Aunt Rilla would be so proud.”

One day in 2012, I used the word “fiddlesticks” in a comment on this blog. Before long, I’d been contacted by a reader who noticed the word and wondered if I’d ever encountered actual fiddlesticks.  I hadn’t. I had no idea they were “things”. They are, and their history is quite interesting.

In 1739, a slave rebellion was suppressed in an area known as Stono, outside the city we call Charleston, South Carolina. During the rebellion, slaves used drums to communicate with one another and recruit reinforcements from neighboring plantations. After the rebellion ended, one of several consequences was that drums were outlawed, not only in South Carolina but in all Southern colonies.

Because of the ban, African drumming traditions were transformed, and the practice of “beating straws” became common. Originally, the percussive sound was produced by beating broom corn, or sorghum, against an instrument’s strings. Later, thin pieces of wood were used and “fiddlesticks” were born.

Fiddlesticks remain a part of traditional American music. Here, fiddler Eric Marten introduces a youngster to the use of fiddlesticks at Old Bethpage Village Restoration on Long Island, New York.

Fiddlesticks are common in traditional Cajun music, too. Dewey Balfa (1927-1992), teamed here with his nephew Todd, provides a marvelous example of the form.

Tim Eriksen, balladeer, fiddler, shape-note and Sacred Harp singer and promoter of what he likes to call “Hardcore Americana” also enjoys combining the fiddle with some sticks.

Fiddlesticks are only part of the story, of course. There still are those “footsies” and “spoons” to be explained. Given the musical backstory for “fiddlesticks”, I can’t help thinking the other references may be musical as well.

My own dad taught me to play spoons, one of the most down-home of percussive instruments. And as my favorite busker, Abby the Spoon Lady, has shown the world, spoon-playing can reach some pretty exalted heights.

As for “footsies”, the percussive sound of human feet on a floor or dance board probably is best known through “Riverdance”. But in small southern towns and Appalachian hollows, along American rivers and on front porches that never will be seen, all the forms of step dance, buck dancing, clogging and flat-footing continue on.

I’ll never know how Rilla understood her famous phrase, of course. But the piling up of details over the years makes me consider the possibility that she was a bit of an early 1900s technophobe. The smashing of phonograph records may have accorded perfectly well with her battle cry, “Fiddlesticks, Footsies and Spoons”.  What seems on its face a bit of Lewis Carroll-like nonsense may in fact have been a plea on behalf of homemade music, the sort that engenders community and participation.

Whatever the truth, I’ll never again utter the word “fiddlesticks” with quite the same thoughtlessness. And who’s to say that, putting away dishes one night, I might not pause at the spoons, turn them this way and that, and then accompany myself in a dance?

I’ll have to be careful, though. Appearances can be relieving, and the neighbors might think me bersmerk.

Comments are welcome. To leave a comment, please click below.

112 thoughts on “Fiddlesticks, Footsies and Spoons

  1. What an interesting read tonight. I have heard the term fiddlesticks, and used it myself on occasion.

    Should have done so tonight after dinner. We were trying to put the remains of the roasted chicken into a bag so we could pick the carcass tomorrow. We dropped it. It bounced off the counter, off my stocking foot, and up against the toe kick. I did a little quick flat foot kick to keep it from heading across the floor to the door way. We laughed over that episode.

    I think I’ve seen the sticks on fiddle once before. It would be fun to try with someone. And the spoons by Abby were excellent. I’ve tried to play them. It doesn’t sound musical.

    Thanks for this tonight. I had a good time.

    1. Jim,

      Whatever gets you dancing is good enough – even if it is your own special (and rather accidental) version of the Chicken Dance. At least you didn’t have a hound that grabbed the bird and headed for the door.

      Abby’s quite a gal. I first ran into her in Nashville, but thanks to youtube and social media, she’s become pretty well known and I suspect only rides the rails when she wants to. In fact, I think I’ve seen that she works with a band on a regular basis now. One of these days I want to do a post on train-hopping, and she and her friends will figure in it for sure.

      I think fiddlesticks would be fun, too. I always liked the kindergarten rhythm band. Maybe they’re the grownup version.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post!


  2. Oh my, you have me laughing and simultaneously wanting to tap dance and kiss your Aunt Rilla full on the mouth. Now what would the neighbors think of THAT? :)

    Wonderful post, as always, Linda.

    1. Emily,

      Not only that, it was your comment in 2012 that led me to use “fiddlesticks” and start this whole train a-rolling. You can find the post here . Your comment’s at 11:58 a.m., just so you can find it more easily. Isn’t it fun, watching this writing process unfold?

      Happy tap-dancing. We don’t care what the neighbors think!


  3. I too have used the term “fiddle sticks” (got it from my grandpa). I’d never heard the background of it either, so thanks for the history lesson. I’m thinking you may be right about your Aunt and the ‘why” behind her giving the records for the kids to break. It’s those kind of questions that come up when I think about my grandma who has been gone for 12 years…Wish I knew to ask her about things, then it’s too late…Thanks for introducing us to Aunt Rilla! DM

    1. DM,

      Of course, it may just be that Rilla didn’t have a clue what to do with the kids, and the “let’s break stuff” approach seemed reasonable. Or, she may have known kids love to break things, and the records were at hand and of no meaning to her. It’s dangerous enough to ascribe motivation to someone who’s alive and in the same room, let alone someone who’s been gone for decades! But, that’s what we do.

      I’m hearing more and more people talk about their regret over not asking more questions, not listening to the stories. I’m in the same boat, of course. It’s crossed my mind that one reason so many of us may feel the lack is that the story-telling and information-passing doesn’t happen naturally any more. The days of families just sitting around on the porch or around the table, telling stories, seem to be disappearing pretty quickly.


  4. This could not have come at a more opportune time, for this month, The Anchorage Folk Festival, in its 25th year is in full swing. And now I know where the term “fiddlesticks” originated! Thank you, Linda.

    1. Monica,

      I see that Tony Trischka is a headliner there. I debated with myself over including a video of fiddlesticks being used with a banjo, but now it seems more than appropriate to mention that particular form of the art.

      Find a pair of knitting needles or chopsticks, then find Tony and volunteer your services! I wonder if he’s ever had the experience of playing in tandem with fiddlesticks?

      Enjoy the Festival!


  5. I like Aunt Rilla. I remember playing spoons as kids but had forgotten all about it. My mother used to say “oh fiddlesticks” all the time but I never really knew what they were. Now I know. This is such an interesting post!

    1. Rubye Jack,

      Isn’t it amazing, the experiences that we share in common? Some of the differences are interesting, too. I read that fiddlesticks weren’t picked up and used among Irish musicians, but of course they had other instruments, such as the bodhrán, to provide a percussive sound.

      What I can’t get my mind around is how “fiddlesticks” made that journey from musical instrument to common expression, whether the word was used as a euphemism, or just another way to say, “Oh, don’t be silly.” There are indications it goes back to the 1600s as a way to describe nonsense, or foolishness, but I haven’t found an example yet.

      So nice to see you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.


  6. And for such a long time because it never occurred to me to check it out…somethings you just learn in context or intuitively…I thought fiddlesticks was another word for bow. And now I know.

    How marvelous you connected all three words and traced their history. You are an inspiration to not just take things unquestioningly.

    This was a spirited post, and I think I could say as spirited as your Aunt Rilla, although you know we never met, so colorful was your description of her. Fun, mischievous, and independent in thought.

    Now I come full circle wanting to ask you where her name Rilla came from?

    1. Georgette,

      Enough people have mentioned thinking a “fiddle stick” was another name for a bow that I went looking, and lo! That’s the only definition Merriam-Webster online gives. So your understanding is one shared by a good number of people – and yet I’d never heard it.

      We had fiddlers in our family. I’ve spent years around bluegrass fiddlers, Cajun fiddlers and string band fiddlers, and I’ve never heard the bow referred to as a “fiddlestick”. Not once. It’s really curious, and even more curious that none of the dictionary entries I’ve looked at include the meaning of fiddlesticks-as-percussion. It’s the linguistic version of “if a tree falls in a forest”. If it doesn’t appear in the dictionary, is it a real word?

      I haven’t a clue about the meaning of her name, but back in her day, Rilla was a very commonly used for girls. Mom had two friends named Rilla – and speaking of wordplay, she once told me they teased the girls with a little verse that rhymed “Rilla” and “Sasparilla”.

      When I first started trying to find some information about her on, there were thousands of Rillas who popped up. Pure fashion, I suppose. When my parents named me, they chose Linda because they thought it so unusual. Not any more!


    1. montucky,

      I suspect you would have gotten on well with her, too. And I’m going to presume you’ll be doing some step-dancing once you get back!
      Best wishes!


  7. My mother’s mother, although a second generation American, spoke English with a pronounced German accent and her version of English was sometimes puzzling and sometimes hilarious. She and her second husband, my step grandfather, made visiting them an exercise in keeping a straight face, like the time Grandma remarked that she liked her new punch doctor (chiropractor) because he had a coffee urine (urn) in his office.” And my step grandfather took great pride in the “palomino peppers” he grew in the garden. (It took us a while to figure that one out.) “Judas Priest” was one of my Aunt’s favorite expressions, and “Oh, foot.”

    I had the idea that “fiddlesticks” referred to the bow used to play the fiddle. Thanks for setting me straight.

    Drums are conspicuous in their absence in most “home made” music. You might scare up some kind of stringed instrument like a fiddle, banjo, dulcimer or guitar, maybe some kind of accordion depending on where you’re trying to pick up a band, or even some kind of wind instrument like a whistle, flute or clarinet, but it’s unlikely to come by a drummer, probably because you can’t carry a tune on most drums,(or play one in church).

    The Irish have a history of using a step dancer as percussion, who always danced on a board brought for the purpose as the hobnailed boots most men wore were too hard on the floor (or lack of it). Of course, if you’re playing for cloggers or step dancers, you don’t need percussion. The dancers provide their own. If it’s sitting on the front porch or around the kitchen table kind of music, thimbles on washboards, or spoons — or fiddlesticks.
    Then there’s mouth music. (You may recognize Jerry Douglas of Union Station or Karen Matheson of Capercaillie)

    1. WOL,

      First – your understanding of the fiddlestick as a bow is correct, at least as far as the dictionary (and apparently a whole lot of people) are concerned. This is one of those interesting occasions where the “twain” hadn’t met. As I mentioned to Georgette, above, I’ve never heard a bow referred to as a fiddlestick, despite being around a lot of fiddlers. But, it’s clearly another acceptable definition and perhaps even the most common one.

      I haven’t heard “Judas Priest” in over thirty years. That was my dad’s way around words my mother didn’t want to hear. It often popped up during plumbing projects, or discussions of how things were going at the office.

      Your thoughts on the absence of drums and such in “homemade” music are exactly on target. On the other hand, some traditional cultures depend almost entirely on drums, rattles and such for musical expression. In Liberia, there were “finger pianos”, but gourds and drums were pretty much it in the villages, at least until someone turned on their boom box.

      I took the time to read the entire description of the dance board I linked to, and am pleased to report it is rated up to 250 pounds. That’s a lot of clogger!


  8. I’ve heard the expression ‘Fiddlesticks,’ but it seems to have a slightly different meaning, more like ‘Nonsense!’ to an idea than ‘Drat!’ when it’s raining on your laundry. If you’d asked me where the term came from, it would have occurred to me that it has something to do with fiddles and sticks, but can’t say I’d ever thought about it before. It just goes to show how much of the time we don’t really know what we’re talking about, doesn’t it?

    I don’t myself say ‘Fiddlesticks,’ though I’ve heard it, or maybe read it. My daughter pointed out that I say ‘Curses!’ which coincides with the meaning I deduce from your Aunt Rilla’s use of fiddlesticks..

    It’s interesting too, about photographs. People never used to smile; perhaps because pictures were such serious business. Now it’s as though a photo can’t be taken without the command to smile. Which gives the truer representation?

    Thanks for this post, and for the music too.

    1. Shirley,

      “Fiddlesticks” does have an appealing elasticity as a word, doesn’t it? I was trying to think of other, equally ambigous words and “phooey” came to mind. I know my mother used that one as a substitute for some four-letter words, but it also can express just sheer exasperation, or doubt about what someone’s said. As a friend uses it, it’s clearly dismissive – a way to end a conversation she’s grown weary of.

      On the other hand, when my grandfather said, “Dagnabbit!”, there was only one possible interpretation, and we generally fled the room.

      In the process of searching for Rilla’s photo (the only one we have, as far as we know), I did find some others that show a certain playfulness. As people moved out of the photography studios and snapshots became more common, things became more relaxed. On the other hand, in a snapshot of my great-grandmother holding a laundry tub next to her clothesline, she looks like she’s in front of a firing squad. I need to scan the photo and enlarge, just to see if I can’t find at least a hint of a smile.

      So glad you enjoyed the post, and the music. There’s a rich heritage there.


  9. Oh this is marvelous. I’ve used fiddlesticks often but have no idea where I learned it from. Most of the time I use cotton-picken when I can not curse when in public. I think I’ve used cotton-picken in a post here and there. Funny how we use various words and slang expressions. I have wanted to do a post on the slang words that I learned as a child.

    This post was very enjoyable. You had some characters in your family, as we all had at one time.

    The history of fiddlesticks is quite interesting. There was a game called pick up sticks that kids played- I think. I never did so I’m not sure about the game or maybe that is a fig newton of my imagination. That’s a good one for sure. Love it. :-)

    1. Yvonne,

      I played pick-up sticks when I was a kid. In fact, they still sell them, although I think they’re plastic now instead of wood. As I recall, the best part of the game was dumping all the sticks on the floor. We could do it without being fussed at for making a mess.

      “Cotton-pickin” is a good one, too. I remember hearing that phrase in the context of a joke that was pretty popular in my younger days. It’s silly, but I still laugh. “What did Eli Whitney say to his house guests?” “Keep your cotton-pickin’ hands off my gin.” (Insert groan here.)

      When I think how careful we were with language years ago, and how even the slightest infraction could spell doom, it’s no wonder it sometimes seems like e live in a completely different world. That scene in “A Christmas Story” where Ralphie gets his mouth washed out with soap for saying The Worst Word in the World is something my friends and I groan at because, as today’s saying goes, we’ve been there and done that. At least my mother used Ivory.


    1. Thanks so much, nia! I wish we had some examples of Rilla’s weaving for you to see. From what I’ve been told, she was a beautiful artist with threads and her loom.


  10. Highly entertaining Linda! Naturally, I love all that music. When I lived out bush, I was taught to play the spoons by a very competent person – the trouble these days is finding spoons suitably shaped and with sufficient strength to not bend! Not that I was ever much of a player….

    In this Land Downunder, I recall fiddlesticks being used somewhat differently. Rather than as an expletive, it was used to discount something another had said, as being rubbish.
    My niece has a wonderful talent for unwittingly getting words wrong, but in actual fact it usually improves the meaning! :-)

    1. eremophila,

      You’re right about the shape and weight of the spoons. Years ago, a fellow who was pretty good with them said he always looked for his in thrift shops and such. That’s where you could find the ones with some substance.

      The great thing about spoons, of course, is that the investment is minimal, and even the newest player can contribute something to a jam, even if it’s just clanking along in time with the music.

      I have heard and used “fiddlesticks” in a dismissive way. Other “old” words that I’ve heard used like that are “pshaw” and “pish-tosh”. I’ve seen both defined as “natural exclamations”.

      I’m not sure about Rilla, but when Mom used “fiddlesticks”, the words she was substituting for could have been on the level of “damn” – fairly mild. She would occasionally use, “Oh, drat”, but that was pushing it. I one time I heard her really cut loose, she was under the influence of demerol in the ICU, and to be quite frank, I didn’t know she even knew some of those words. I never told her about it, of course. Instead, we just laughed about the Golden Retriever she was certain was living under the bed.


  11. Your Rilla sounds like a hoot. Thanks for sharing her with us. Wonderfully entertaining and informative post. Loved the Tim Eriksen video– the fiddlesticks gave it an almost Middle Eastern sound. Good stuff!

    1. Gary,

      Every family has one or two Rillas – thank goodness! You should keep your eye out for Eriksen. I checked his calendar and the closest he’ll be to you right now is Albany, but he’s northeast-centric,so he might pop up some time.

      And by the way – it was Al who put me on to real fiddlesticks, over a year ago. I tucked the information in the draft files and said, “Someday I’m going to follow up on this”. And now I have!

      Glad you enjoyed it.


  12. Linda,

    Your history of fiddlesticks is interesting. My recollection of its definition is similar to eremophila’s. It was used to disregard someone’s comments. It was the same as telling someone their comments were silly, not to be taken seriously. I guess it was similar to Scarlett telling Mammy, “Fiddle-de-de.” I like the idea of using it as a substitute for a curse word. I may adopt it next time I’m cut off in traffic.

    Aunt Rilla was a caution. So nice of you to introduce her to us.

    1. Bella Rum,

      We’re of the same generation and share a lot of experiences. I thought of Scarlett’s “Fiddle-de-de”, too. But “fiddlesticks” clearly is a word that can multi-task. Frustration, anger, dismissiveness, impatience – it can cover them all, and serve as a pretty good cuss word in the bargain.

      A long time ago I knew a family with five kids. The parents got tired of trying to corral their language, so they told each kid to choose their own personal word for swearing. I just can’t remember what words were chosen. I doubt if anyone picked “fiddlesticks”, though.


  13. Morning Linda:

    Here we go again, learning the history of English expressions. Some of them are familiar, others are as strange as an alien from another planet.

    Fiddlesticks are used in Panama in the countryside by our folklore musicians. Albeit, they were more popular in the past. I’m sure the instrument, the violin, was introduced to Panama by Spanish Conquistadores.

    Spoons and feet to create music is unknown in this part of the world. BTW, I don’t recall having head the expression “fiddlesticks” as a cuss word, but I have not lived in an English-speaking country.

    Thank you again for teaching us new English expressions. So much to learn, so little time. Great post!



    1. Omar,

      How interesting that fiddlesticks-the-instrument are used there in Panama, too. Of course, people tend to use what’s at hand to make music. That’s how we got the washtub, the washboard and dried gourds as musical instruments. Also the saw, now that I think about it – and the comb with tissue wrapped around it!

      I’ll bet there’s a Spanish word that functions in the same way as fiddlesticks – a nice, non-offensive word that can do when the impulse is to say something not so nice.

      In a way it’s a strange discussion to be having, in this time when nearly every word out of our mouths can offend someone. But that’s a different discussion – one that just might coax a “oh, fiddlesticks!” out of my mouth.

      Just in case you have a hankering (there’s another expression!) to be the first spoon player in Panama, here’s a good video that can help you.


      1. “I’ll bet there’s a Spanish word that functions in the same way as fiddlesticks – a nice, non-offensive word that can do when the impulse is to say something not so nice.”

        Yes we have one. It’s “Vaya la vida”. We all say it, including women. We all know what it means, but the words themselves are quite innocent. The translation is, “Oh, it’s life”, but it has nothing to do with life or anything related to it. You know what I mean. :-)



  14. This is absolutely wonderful to read, I didn’t know fiddlesticks was shorthand!
    What a wonderful character to have within the family. “Rilla never married, famously acknowledging she might have done so had marriage not necessitated the presence of a man in her life” was wonderful. I love women from the past who know what they want and are determined to stand by those beliefs.
    I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    1. Carol,

      I have a feeling that the “shorthand” was Rilla’s alone, just one of those funny things that people say. Everyone in the family knows the expression, and maybe a teacher or grocer, but outside the city limits? It would fall flat – or at least draw a quizzical look or three.

      I’m not sure whether I’m more fond of Rilla, or of Inazel, the great-aunt who married her stepson and ran off to Hawaii. But more about her later. They both were strong, independent women – as were so many who crossed oceans or plains to set up new lives.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your lovely comment. You’re always welcome!


  15. Hoo, boy, your Aunt Rilla must have been a real hoot!

    While she probably raised eyebrows amongst the adults, I can see why she’d be adored by her nieces and nephews and neighborhood kids! I sure wish I’d known her.

    I’ve been known to utter, “Fiddlesticks,” from time to time but I’d never thought about where it came from. I’d say that your explanations of fiddlesticks, footsies and spoons is probably spot on.

    Being Charleston born and bred, I’ve known about the Stono Rebellion for years. White slave owners were terrified of rebellion and any form of communication and possible organization by slaves had to be quashed. It was a losing battle, though. The slave grapevine passed news faster than the white one. I’ve heard that white owners would often hear news from their house servants before they’d hear it from their neighbors.

    There was an attempted rebellion in Charleston in 1822. It was planned by Denmark Vesey, a free slave.

    1. Gué,

      Mom really enjoyed her Aunt Rilla. She said she was truly a nice lady, despite her little quirks, and she loved going to her house. Rilla’s grandmother was born in 1832 and died in 1915. I have a photo of her in a cane-backed wheel chair with huge wheels. The photo says she was Grandmother Crowley’s mother, so that would have made her Mom’s great-great-great-grandmother. I still don’t have them all sorted out, but I’m working on it.

      I really was surprised when I surfaced the origin of fiddlesticks, and I knew you would be familiar with the rebellion and other aspects of the history.

      Your comments about the grapevine made me smile. When I went back to Liberia for six weeks in the mid-80s, there was one woman I really wanted to see. She wasn’t around, but I found some of her friends in Monrovia and said I was looking for her. They said she’d gone to Ivory Coast, but they’d try and get in touch. Three days later, she showed up in a taxi. I never did figure out how the word got to her, but it surely wasn’t cell phone.

      Well! I got caught up in the narrative about Vesey and nearly forgot to come here. Very, very interesting. I’ll finish it up before bed tonight. Little by little you’re filling in the gaps in my knowledge of Charleston!


  16. Your Aunt Rilla sounds like a feminist before it became popular. In fact, I imagine many a maiden relative in everybody’s family would have found her a kindred spirit.

    I’ve heard the term “Fiddlesticks,” of course, but it wasn’t particularly popular on either side of my family. My late dad’s Irish people, mostly strict Baptists, wouldn’t cuss to save their necks, but all bets were off with my mom’s Italian Catholic clan! We wee ones picked up many a “naughty” word lurking behind doors or in the next room when the adults thought we weren’t listening.

    Thanks for an interesting, entertaining read today!

    1. Debbie,

      I’m not sure what Rilla would think of today’s feminists, but then, I’m not sure what I think of today’s feminists. What I do know is that if things got tough and I had to chose someone to guide me through the troubles, I’d pick Rilla over Lena Dunham in a hot minute!

      You really surprised me with your Irish-Baptist dad. I tend to think of the division of the Irish faithful as simply Protestant/Catholic, but I looked, and found a multitude of denominations represented, both in Ireland and among Irish-Americans.

      Wasn’t it fun to listen behind the door? I grew up in a two-story house, and when the big people were playing cards or whatever, I could creep down to the landing on the stairway and listen. I had to be careful, though, because the stairs squeaked.

      Glad you enjoyed the post! It was a fun one to write. (Speaking of which – how’s that editing coming?)


  17. What a wonderful story. Some ancient relative always said bosom instead of chicken breast – as kids we just ignored it as archaic speech. Had forgotten that. Did you ever play washboard? Dad taught us spoons and washboard. I get amused when certain groups say slaves in the South “created/invented” tap dancing.
    Smiling over this one for sure

    1. phil,

      I had a younger cousin who got seriously confused by all the chicken-bosom talk. She heard hymns in Sunday School and church about the “bosom of Abraham” and such. She knew angels had feathers, and chickens had feathers – well. We never knew exactly what she thought, but one day she threw a complete fit over catching one of the chickens for dinner. I guess she thought we were about to behead an angel.

      I didn’t play washboard. I’ve only learned in the past few years that the term for the instrument in Zydeco is “rubboard” or “froittoir”, and that Clifton Chenier was the one responsible for adapting the washboard to “wearable percussion”. Jeffery Broussard and the Creole Cowboys make pretty good use of it.


  18. I thoroughly enjoyed this! I had to read the part about the Stono Rebellion to Mike – he’s taught about that many times in his classes. We have a friend who plays banjo in a civil-war era band (Bowld Sojers) – I’ve got to ask him if they’ve tried fiddlesticks before :)

    And I love her versions of words – it’s the best kind of family story…

    1. Dana,

      Take a look at the link that Gué left, just above, about Denmark Vesey. I started reading it and got completely caught up. I’m going to finish it tonight, I hope.

      Is this your Bowld Sojers band? I can’t imagine there are many of them, but I couldn’t find anything on youtube or the web that gives their location. I’m not on Facebook, so I couldn’t go over there and find the information.

      They sound good. I was doing some reading on a traditional music forum where Eric Marten was posting (the fellow with the boy, up above) and he was saying that, as a re-enactor and a fiddler for a historic site, he never uses nylon or steel strings. Only gut, as it would have been “back in the day”. I thought that was interesting – and right. It’s good to hear the music as it would have been – not just unamplified, but with properly outfitted instruments.

      I know there are more “Rilla-isms”, but my aunt can’t remember them and mom is gone. It’s going to be up to me to try and increase the list!


  19. Laughing here, Linda… I am reminded of my father and his large vocabulary of non-swear swear-words– things like gol ding it, gosh durn it, and many more. He did know some other words though. I heard them once when he hit his finger with a hammer. :)

    I never heard him say fiddlesticks, however. I think that may have been an equivalent swear word for the women of his generation.

    Absolutely loved the spoons. What talent!


    1. Curt,

      My dad once told me those “other words” were part of a worker’s technical vocabularly. For certain jobs, you just had to say them, or the job wouldn’t be done properly.

      Now that you mention it, I think you’re right that “fiddlesticks” as an expression belonged to the fairer sex. I tried to imagine any of the men of the family saying it, and I couldn’t. On the other hand, the men do right well with the kind that actually make music.

      Abby the Spoon Lady is quite the gal. I’ve looked and looked and can’t find the original video from Nashville. In that one, she was just sitting on a corner busking, and talking a bit about her life. One of her best videos involves a freight train, three sets of spoons and a Samsonite suitcase. I did find her “instructional video” for you. I never get tired of watching.

      I did discover that she has a website and facebook page, now. Talk about growing organically!


  20. I don’t know that I’ve ever come across the name Rilla, so I looked in A Dictionary of First Names, by Hanks and Hodges, but was surprised to find no entry for that name, even though this is a reliable reference book. Online baby name sites aren’t always correct in their claims, but I took a look anyhow and found a couple that claim Rilla is of German origin and means ‘brook’ or ‘stream’ (compare the way Brook(e) functions as a name in English). In fact even before I turned to those websites, a line from “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” had popped into my head: “I love thy rocks and rills.” English did take rill from Low German or Dutch, so the name Rilla coming from Germanic is at least plausible.

    1. Steve,

      I think it’s more than plausible. Rilla’s family name was Mathis, which various sites list as French, German or Dutch. mentions it’s a variant of the personal name Mathias or Matthew.

      I found Rilla through tonight. Her page is here. Mom had told me the Mathis clan lived around Washington, Iowa for a time, and everything else is right – single, homeowner, and so on.

      Washington happens to be just about 70 miles east of Pella, Iowa, a town as Dutch as anything you can find outside Holland. It’s all very interesting. I did find one site saying people named Rilla “tend to be very spiritually involved.” I suppose that could explain the Ouiji board.

      Rilla’s mother was “Grandmother Mathis” to everyone. She was born in 1832 and died in 1915. She was an imposing person in her own right. Maybe now I finally can track down her name.


  21. The account that you found of fiddlesticks coming into use after a slave rebellion in 1739 may be true, but the word fiddlestick had appeared in English well before then:

    After the literal meaning of the word as ‘the bow of a fiddle,’ the Oxford English Dictionary gives the ‘something insignificant or absurd’ sense attested as early as 1621. The dictionary’s earliest citation for fiddlestick as an interjection is from 1600.

    1. Language is funny – as you so well know. It wasn’t until after I’d written this and began reading responses that it even occurred to me a “fiddlestick” might be a bow. I’d never heard the term used that way. But clearly that was the original meaning of the term.

      It seems reasonable to assume the slave practice of “beating straws” received a new name as it was picked up by other groups. The question is, where did the fiddlestick become fiddlesticks? The answer’s out there somewhere, and I suspect some of these traditional musicians could explain it.

      Oh, fiddlesticks! Something else to explore!

  22. Another wonderful portrait of a person I wish I could meet! I say fiddlesticks too, sometimes, but I had no idea there was something so fascinating behind it. I tried and failed miserably at playing the spoons, but I think I’ve been doing footsies all my life and never knew!

    Don’t you love the delightfully eccentric, willing to give you the records and the means to destroy them to blow off youthful steam? I think we all have a version or two, although none of mine could hold a candle to Aunt Rilla! When you said “inconsistencies are the stuff of life” I thought you nailed it perfectly. Oh, yes, you did! Another little gem, Linda! Making me smile!

    1. Jeanie,

      When it comes to inconsistencies, the biggest one in this story probably is the one represented by my mother and that afternoon of destruction. She told me the story of the records and the hammer so often, and with such obvious pleasure – I just couldn’t understand it, especially from a woman so dedicated to saving, preserving and not damaging possessions.

      Perhaps it only was a moment of extravagance in the midst of a life where extravagance was impossible, where even the necessities often were lacking. Perhaps it was nothing more than a child’s love of breaking things. Perhaps it was, as we like to say, “just one of those things”. But it was important to her, and I love Rilla for giving her something important that perhaps no one else could.

      I’m so fond of eccentric people – singular, self-possessed, often obsessed with this or that. That’s a fair description of many artists, now that I think of it. Of course, eccentricity isn’t enough. As Hemingway so wonderfully said, “What difference does it make if you live in a picturesque little outhouse surrounded by 300 feeble- minded goats and your faithful dog? The question is: Can you write?”

      That makes me smile, and I’m glad I made you smile!


  23. LOVED this! I just adore your Aunt Rilla; who wouldn’t? And as a Scottish-Irish descendant with roots in the South and the Appalachians… Who, by law must have a LOVE of the fiddle (wink)… I’ve sent this to my mother and aunt. The music and dancing is just WONDERFUL. Thanks for sharing this most excellent and beautiful musical form. You made my somewhat mellow day oh-so-bright. :)

    1. FeyGirl,

      How wonderful that you sent this on to your own mother and aunt – that pleases me so much! I hope they enjoy it. The music and dancing are wonderful, and it makes me happy that so many people are dedicating themselves to its preservation.

      I know that my mother’s dad played mandolin, and there was a cousin who fiddled. As I delve back into family history, the gap between Ireland/Europe and Iowa is being filled, especially with West Virginia and Kentucky. Perhaps that’s why I love music like this so much – it’s my version of roots music.

      If your day’s brighter, my mission here is accomplished! Good to see you – I hope all’s well.


      1. Oh, they — my fiery red-headed mother and aunt — just ADORED your article!!

        They too, talked about our Irish roots in the region, and of how my grandparents told stories of the music and dancing. It’s why I so love this music, and Ireland’s.

        Many thanks again for highlighting both forms — and bringing smiles to ALL our faces! -Christina

    1. I was wondering the same thing. In the Online Etymology Dictionary, I found this:

      “Fiddle has been relegated to colloquial usage by its more proper cousin, violin, a process encouraged by phraseology such as fiddlesticks, contemptuous nonsense word fiddlededee (1784), and fiddle-faddle. Fit as a fiddle is from 1610s.”

      So, it was an expression in use long before Scarlett latched on to it.

      Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother used the expression, and Irving Berlin wrote a song incorporating it.

      A children’s poet named Eugene Field. published a book titled “Wynken, Blynken and Nod and Other Children’s Verses” in 1925. I loved the title poem, but didn’t realize the volume also included a poem titled “Fiddle-Dee-Dee”. Here’s the first verse.

      “There once was a bird that lived up in a tree,
      And all he could whistle was “Fiddle-dee-dee”–
      A very provoking, unmusical song
      For one to be whistling the summer day long!
      Yet always contented and busy was he
      With that vocal recurrence of “Fiddle-dee-dee.”

      There are several more verses, which you can read here.


  24. You can play the spoons? Well I’ll be a fig newton! Really, I do love these expressions. So much better than the four-letter ones that are all too much in common parlance. For a period, I used “Holy mackerel” and “Holy cow” a lot. When one stops to parse them, what DO they mean?

    1. Susan,

      Better to say, “I used to play the spoons”. Which I did, particularly during a year in Utah when bluegrass, burgers and beer at a place outside Salt Lake City was the usual Sunday afternoon routine. I won’t say I was good, but I could keep time and add a fancy lick now and then. I gave it a try just now, and all I managed to do was wake up the cat.

      Another great expression that was just “there” during my growing up years was, “Lord, love a duck”. The OED offers one example – from James Joyce’s “Ulysses”. It was used by TS Eliot, too, in “The Rock”. More about all that here.

      And here’s what the same site had to say about your “Holy cow! They don’t have anything particular to say about “Holy mackerel”, but I did find this.

      And now I’m wondering about “holy moley”. Holy smokes!


          1. Oh, indeed, and gives a whole new meaning to “collect” (or perhaps restores the word to its original meaning). I often feel I am going around the house collecting my thoughts, much as I might collect lost socks . . . or cat toys.

  25. This post reminded me of one I’ve been putting off for no particular reason, a post concerning expressions I use that I recognize as having come from one or another of my antecedents.

    One of those was my Aunt Rita — not my aunt at all, but my mother’s best friend for seventy years. If she didn’t quite catch something uttered in conversation, Rita would say, “What? Who hit Nellie in the belly with a flounder?” Decades later, I was sitting in a news meeting when one of the editors used that expression. I had never heard it from anyone’s lips but Rita’s. I asked Joe where he had learned it, and he said it was commonly used in his family. I later found out that it was the title of song, which neither Joe nor I had ever known. Maybe I’ll write that post.

    1. Charles,

      I thought of you while I was writing this. I could imagine you hyper-ventilating a bit when you got to the story of Rilla turning the kids loose with the vinyl records. There’s no question it happened – one of Mom’s cousin’s was there, too, and remembered it vividly – but the whys and wherefores probably are lost forever.

      My own favorite (if fictional) explanation? The records were gifts from a suitor who’d been sent packing, and the kids provided a perfect way to dispose of some memorabilia.

      I think you need to write that post. It sounds as though Nellie and her flounder might have come from the period that included songs like Kay Kyser’s “Three Little Fishies”. But isn’t it something that the phrase popped up so many years later, and in such an amazing context?

      I landed on the homepage of the Online Etymology Dictionary today for the first time, and mentioned to someone else how taken I was with the first sentence there: “This is a map of the wheel-ruts of modern English.” Language keeps traveling, and sometimes we get a glimpse of the tracks.


      1. There was a story in The Times yesterday about the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED staff has determined that OMG was first used to mean “Oh, my God” in 1917 in a letter to Winston Churchill.

        I’m going to check out that etymology dictionary.

  26. What a great post, and it makes me think of sayings my father paraphrased over the years of my childhood, and I was an adult before I knew the real sayings and their real meanings or connotations. Fun with words. That’s what I call it. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and the musical additions! So, tell me, where does “fiddle-dee-dee” come from? Mary Poppins?

    Oh! “Gone with the Wind?” :)

    1. Bayou Woman,

      You and Gué were traveling the same thought-paths. She asked about fiddle-dee-dee, too, and I did a little research this morning. You can read the whole response up above where she commented, but here’s what the Etymology Online Dictionary has to say.

      “Fiddle has been relegated to colloquial usage by its more proper cousin, violin, a process encouraged by phraseology such as fiddlesticks, contemptuous nonsense word fiddlededee (1784), and fiddle-faddle. Fit as a fiddle is from 1610s.”

      So it’s an old expression – much older than Mary Poppins and Scarlett, but just as useful now as it was in their day.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve got another little bit of spoon-playing for you that I was going to put in the post but decided not to so I could highlight Abby. You can’t get more downhome than this – enjoy!


        1. With all those fires going, it may have been too cold for the front porch – like it’s going to be tonight. I see you’ve got a freeze warning, but we’ve got a winter weather warning for sleet, freezing rain and maybe, just maybe, some sneaux! Stay warm!

          1. What? Sneaux down your way? Unreal. I haven’t been on the water for a couple of weeks, and I need a fix, but I reckon it will have to wait for fair winds and following seas! Stay cozy, my friend.

  27. Abby the spoon lady is just amazing. I’m keeping this post in my ‘saved’ file so that she can cheer me up during the dreary West of Scotland winter which sometimes lasts until June in these parts…..I exaggerate, but only slightly! And – let’s hear it for eccentric, memorable relatives. I could tell you about a few of my own, except their shades might return to haunt me.

    1. Anne,

      It is cheerful music, isn’t it? As you know, fiddles can carry a lonesome sound, but when it comes to let’s-get-cheered-up music, fiddles, acordions, mandolins and such can really to the trick.

      For at least the next little while, we’ll be sharing the same sort of weather. We have our very own winter weather warning, which includes rain, freezing rain, sleet and snow. We’re all rather excited and looking forward to the usual consequences: overwrought tv weathercasters, people sliding backward down bridges, the sound of sleet on windows. True, deep, long-lasting winter can wear on the soul, no doubt. But here? Fingers crossed and praying for something substantial!

      As for those relatives – I dont’ know. If you wrote about them, they might be so pleased at the attention they’d come around and whisper more tales in your ear.


  28. I never know where you will take me when I begin to read your stories, Linda. Today, you took me right back to my Grandfather Beverley’s knee. I spent as much time as I could on his knee and listening to him fiddle. I also remember giving him a hard time about “not playing my songs right” and he would just keep on playing them all wrong anyway. His way. ;)

    What I wouldn’t give to hear him playing his way today. I have grown up with an appreciation for mountain music. Someday I hope to visit the Kentucky mountains he called home.

    Thank you for your lovely post.

    1. Lynda,

      When I saw “August: Osage County” last weekend, it occurred to me I’d never known a man named Beverly – one of the male characters in the film carried that name. And now here you are, with your own grandfather Beverly! I love the thought of little-you listening to him play, and I love the thought that he went right on, playing as he pleased.

      In the process of writing this post and responding to comments, I discovered that Rilla’s parents came to Iowa from Kentucky. Of course they would have been exposed to the same music your grandfather played – isn’t it fun to imagine them in the same town? I’d say it’s not likely, but I’m becoming less and less willing to say anything is impossible.

      Remember that day you were heading up to the mountain and I left you a little traveling music? I knew it tickled you, but I thought it was just the dual reference to Alabama and your new home. Now I’m smiling even more at the opening line: “Play me some mountain music, like Grandma and Grandpa used to play…”


  29. What a large and wonderful post Linda. The music videos were great too.

    I probably substitute “rubbish” for fiddlesticks as a word for great disregard, unless I find something stronger. I never knew about the actual use of fiddlesticks, thinking it as simply a word.

    I was a tap dancer most of my life and still find it hard to keep my feet still on occasion. There were fife and drum corps years ago, and we kids got out the empty oatmeal boxes to beat on and used a comb and waxed paper for the fife. I was the majorette twirling a long stick. Great parades.

    I think I would have loved Aunt Rilla. Can’t wait to see what you do with Inazel.

    1. Kayti,

      We hear the expression “larger than life”, but until we meet someone who truly fits the description, it’s a little hard to appreciate its truth.

      I’d forgotten about “rubbish”. I have a couple of friends who use that as an expression for doubt or disparagement. They’re both British – I think they speak of “rubbish bins” instead of “trash bins”, too. Another path to travel!

      I can imagine you as a tap dancer, with no trouble at all. My mom was a great fan of the Nicholas Brothers, Fred Astaire and so on. There’s a nice biography of the Nicholas Brothers that’s been posted on YouTube. It’s rather amazing to think how many people wouldn’t have a clue today how accomplished they were.

      I never wanted to be the majorette. I was more than happy to stick with the comb and oatmeal box. But I would have marched in your parade!

      You and Rilla would have made quite a pair, but I confess that Inazel’s my favorite. She’s another I’ve only “gotten to know” in the past decade or so, but there’s much more information about her, both in family records, on the web and from personal stories told by cousins who knew her. Next to Inazel, Rilla looks positively mainstream.


  30. Of course, where else would I find info on fiddlesticks, footsies, and spoons, their folklores and meaning I’d never known. This is just another evidence showing a language is more than just the sound, syntax, and grammatical structures, but history, legends, and all the stories that come with every word. If I’m to teach ESL again, I’d feel utterly ill-equipped. ;)

    1. Arti,

      Oh, I think you’d be perfectly well-equipped. Just look at what happened in the course of writing this post and responding to the comments. I knew “fiddlesticks” as an expression, and then discovered “fiddlesticks” also were used to make music. What I didn’t know is that “fiddle stick” is an old, old word for the bow used with a violin. I’ve never in my life heard it used that way, so it took other people to broaden my understanding of the word.

      Our language is so rich that the meanings of words, and our familiarity with them, varies tremendously – not only through time, but also geographically. The wonderful Dictionary of American Regional English has 60,000 entries! Just for fun, you might want to try out their sample (upper left sidebar) and follow them on Twitter @darewords.

      I just have to find a way to turn my experience with a particular nice, country word into a post. Even native speakers can become utterly and hilariously confused!


      1. But nothing like being born into a culture. Anyway… I’ve posted my review of August: Osage County. Just thought you might want to share your view. ;)

  31. You are always digging up the most amazing histories! I’d never heard of the trio Rilla used, but it reminded me instantly of Bilbo’s “sticklebats”! I’d love to sit and ask Rilla a million questions about her life, but she looks as if she would not put up with it for long ;-)

    1. nikkipolani,

      I had to think for a second before I realized you were referring to Bilbo Baggins. And sure enough, “sticklebats” is all over the web as Bilbo’s “soft, euphemistic little curse”. Isn’t that a great description?

      It would be wonderful to get a day with some of these people. A day wouldn’t be enough, of course, but it would be enough to flesh out some of the details. I’d never thought of it, but someone suggested that, since I’ve found her on the tax rolls and know the address of her house, I might even find a photograph or two. Another project to add to the list!


  32. Wonderful post. Another masterpiece.

    “Fiddlesticks” was the strongest word I ever hear my Granny say. Like your Aunt Rilla she reserved it for ocassions like when a cow kicked over the milk bucket, or something got into the eggs. She always had a song in her voice. Thanks for reminding me…

    1. Bill,

      I love your description of your Granny having “a song in her voice”. That mountain music doesn’t always need a fiddle or fiddlesticks to make its presence felt.

      I’ve been playing with a little hypothesis. It seems to me that saying “damn!” or other such monosyllables helps to keep anger or frustration alive. But “fiddlesticks”? By the time we get all the way through that one, it’s impossible to still be as angry as we were in the beginning. Maybe it’s not just a milder word in itself – perhaps it actually helps keep us milder.

      I’ll bet Emmylou could make your Granny say “Oh, fiddlesticks!”


  33. I loved hearing about your Aunt Rilla and her remarkable way with words. I think you might have inherited some of those genes. I have one uncle who always interjected ,”By golly,” into his conversations, so I understand how certain words and phrases can be associated with special people.

    1. Rosemary,

      Now, there’s a fun discussion – linguistically, is it nature or nurture? While Rilla and Inazel on my mother’s side had their ways with words, my dad was the punster, and the one thta I always went back and forth with, looking for a way to best him in clever responses. (I rarely did.)

      Sometimes, twisting words can work as well to help us remember people as the expression “By golly” did with your uncle. I had a friend who never in her life, from grade school on, was able to say “popsicle”. It always was “pospicle”. Otherwise, she had no problem at all with reading or speaking. But that was “her” word, and no one ever “cured” her of it.


  34. There was so much of personality filtering through the descriptions of Aunt Rilla. I love how you take us on a meandering journey in your posts,and I liked where this one ended.

    1. Damyanti,

      It’s the “personalities” who intrigue us, isn’t it? On the other hand, everyone has a story. Maybe part of the trick for us is to learn how to tell the stories of people like Rilla, so we can go on and tell the stories of people who are equally interesting but less flamboyant.

      Thanks for coming along on the journey – I’m glad you liked the ending!


  35. Thanks for this Linda, I loved tapping along with the music pieces. As I read of these words’ provenance, I was reminded of how our language is like a house, with foundations we take for granted. So many words, and phrases, we use have meanings hidden to us. What fun it is to find their origin. The world becomes just a little clearer here and there, if only for a moment… but what a moment it is! Allen

    1. Allen,

      I still remember my amazement when, as a new sailor, I discovered how many words and expressions in common English have nautical origins. “Three sheets to the wind”. “Posh”. “Even keel”. “A square meal”. “The whole nine yards”. Each new phrase was a little revelation.

      There’s a sense in which language itself is the incarnation of experience, a way of fleshing out what it means to be human. When language and life no longer are consonant, the result isn’t very happy – we can get the cynicism of the advertiser or the manipulation of the politician.

      It’s a good reason to study words, to know what they mean. Otherwise, we’re at the mercy of every Humpty Dumpty who comes down the road, telling us that words mean just what he or she chooses for them to mean- neither more nor less. That kind of chaos, we don’t need!


      1. Unfortunately the explanation of posh as an acronym is a widespread bit of folk-etymology. See the word history part of the entry at:

        As a rule of thumb, I’ll say that any purported origin of a word as an acronym before the middle of the 20th century is false.

        Speaking of rule of thumb, the supposed origin of that phrase that has circulated widely for the last few decades is more folk etymology, this time disseminated (!) to further a certain agenda:

        1. My goodness. That means I’ve misunderstood “posh” since the 1960s, when an aunt traveled to Europe by ship and everyone in the family talked about her posh accomodations.You’re certainly right about that misunderstanding being widespread. I’ve seen it in trivia games and heard it explained on television. Whenever it comes up in conversation, there’s usually someone around willing to give the “port out, starboard home” definition.

          I did come across an interesting source for OMG that takes it back to 1917, even though it’s only an acronymn and not a word.

          As for Cecil, a person could get lost in that website pretty quickly. The “rule of thumb” article was as fascinating as the accompanying illustration was humorous. I’ve never heard the expression as anything more than a way of referring to a rough (that is, estimated) measurement. The dissemination (clever!) of the other meaning is quite a study.

          On an unrelated note, I found this page dedicated to Spanish loan words in American English on the DARE site this morning. It’s down the page a bit.


          1. Some of these false explanations, like the one for posh, have taken on a life of their own and are very hard—probably impossible—to get rid of.

            That early use of O.M.G. is quite a find. I’ve occasionally had an experience like that, of reading a passage in an old publication, and noticing a usage that I’d always thought entered the language much later. It occasionally happens that a word or phrase comes into use, goes out of fashion, and then makes a comeback.

            Technically, by the way, O.M.G. is an initialism, not an acronym:


            With an acronym, e.g. radar or scuba, people pronounce the initials as if they were an actual word (which they then become), whereas with an initialism we just say the names of the letters, e.g. oh em gee. If omg were pronounceable in English, it would probably become an acronym.

  36. I’ve been thinking on your Aunt Rilla’s use of chicken ‘bosoms’ rather than ‘breasts.’ There’s been a niggling thought that I’ve read something, somewhere, that hints at this as a holdover from Victorian times.

    The Victorians were a bit prudish and any reference to body parts was considered an etiquette faux pas. Even mentioning that a piece of furniture had legs was a no-no.

    Why ‘bosom’ would be preferable to ‘breast,’ I’m not sure. To my modern ears, they’re about the same. Maybe ‘breast’ was just a little bit too explicit for them and ‘bosom’ was an acceptable alternative.

    1. Gué,

      Once again, I made a run over to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and discovered that bosom has an interesting history. In their entry, they say the narrowed meaning “a woman’s breasts” is from 1959; but bosomy, “big-breasted”, is from 1928. Bosom-friend is attested 1580s; bosom buddy from 1920s.

      If it’s true that the word implies the enclosure created by arms and breast, that’s why the phrase “she clutched them to her bosom” makes sense – both the arms and the breast are involved.

      To get back to Rilla – who knows? Maybe she looked at the roasted chicken, saw the wings tucked neatly next to the breast like a pair of arms and just thought, “Bosom!”


      1. I don’t think the Online Etymology Dictionary is correct about 1959. In A Dictionary of Euphemisms & Other Doubletalk, Hugh Rawson writes: “‘Bosom’ seems to have taken hold as a euphemism for female breasts during the first third of the nineteenth century when incipient Victorians were cleaning up their language in preparation for Her ascent to the throne in 1837.” The entry is a lot longer and it cites examples (including James Joyce in the early 20th century), so 1959 is way too late a date.

        1. I thought Bug’s comment about the Victorians made perfect sense. It almost makes me wonder if there’s a misprint in the OED. I did think 1959 was late – after all, I was 13 at that point and Rilla was gone. It’s just another reminder that multiple sources always are a good idea. I try and fact-check my posts, but I guess I’d better get with it and do it for comments, too!

          1. I’m fortunate in having some good language books that I can turn to. Printed books sometimes have mistakes in them, of course, but on the whole they’re more reliable than purely online sources because books have had editors and fact checkers (though the ones today aren’t generally as good as the ones who used to do those jobs).

  37. Fiddlesticks was a word I never picked up myself, but have heard my entire life. It doesn’t seem to be a colloquialism to any area I’ve lived, but very widely known in the USA. like so many other words and phrases, I don’t think the masses know the origin of many things they say. If they did, they’d probably quit using some of them :-)

    I enjoyed reading about your aunt and it was nice to put a face with her description.

    very good read.

    1. sherri,

      It’s been such fun to remember some of those “old-fashioned” phrases that have dropped out of common usage. I’m sure there are many reasons, including the increasing use of platforms like Twitter, or texting. “LOL” doesn’t take up nearly as much room on Twitter as “fiddlesticks”.

      I happened to see a reference to another acronymn that I’ve assumed is quite current, but isn’t. “OMG” has been found in a 1917 message to Winston Churchill from British Admiral John Arbuthnot.

      Who knows what else we’ll discover?

      I’m glad you enjoyed the read. I think you would have enjoyed Aunt Rilla, too.


  38. First of all, your mom looks just like you at that age!

    I’ve never been to a festival in the South without those pieces of plywood, inviting all to flatfoot. I never was able to resist getting out there, but a word of caution: if you’re the only one out there tearing up that board, you’re probably dancing to a gospel song– a definite no-no.

    1. Claudia,

      Several people have commented the resemblance between Mom and me over the years. All things considered, I’m hoping I look like her at 90. She always appeared to be at least ten years younger than her chronological age – sometimes more.

      Now that you mention it, I don’t remember ever seeing anyone dance with a partner to a gospel song, and don’t remember anyone flatfooting or clogging to such, either. There’s plenty of shouting and dancing in some congregations, but that’s a different sort of thing.

      One of my cousins and her husband got involved in clogging, and enjoyed it tremendously. I hope you’re still dancing, one way or another.


  39. “Fiddlesticks” is one of my favorite expressions, but I confess to never having given it much thought. I’ll think of this every time I say it now.

    Given the record smashing and the “bosom” substitution, the Ouija board is a curious thing.

    1. Context is everything, Hippie. There are so many words just hanging around out there, weighted down with histories and relationships no one knows about.

      I think if I were a great word that no one really understood or appreciated, it would make me sad. I mean – how would you feel if you were “garrulous”, and you could only stand on the sidelines and watch “dude” get all the love?

      Family reports are that she took that board seriously. It’s occurred to me that there was an Ouiji board in our house when I was growing up. I don’t have a clue if it was Rilla’s, but I can’t imagine my folks buying one, for me or for themselves. Some questions just have no answers.


  40. Whenever I watch someone skilled at any musical instrument, there’s a part of my mind that refuses to believe what I’m seeing. It just doesn’t seem possible. And for me, it wasn’t — my fiddle lessons ended abruptly after six months, when my instructor decided to move to South Korea. I tried not to take it personally.

    I also never knew what fiddlesticks were, and watching those videos again caused me to wonder how the two performers manage to maintain their own rhythms while playing the same instrument. It just can’t be happening. And Abby’s expertise with the spoons must be computer-generated. I can barely handle one spoon and a bowl of soup.

    By the way, who are the children in that second photograph?

    1. Charles,

      It is amazing to watch a fine musician. And I suspect there’s some of the same amazement for the musician who masters an instrument. I played clarinet for years, and while I never came close to mastering it, there were a few occasions when the playing was pure pleasure.

      I’ve thought about that a good bit in the past couple of years – the relationship between competence and self-forgetfulness. One of my favorite sayings is “Play the music, not the instrument.” I suspect the saying’s infinitely adaptable and could be applied in nearly every field of endeavor.

      I love the fiddlesticks. They remind me of the hammered dulcimer. As for Abby – all I can think when I watch her is how many hours of busking on the street are behind that competence.

      If you do a mouse-over of the photo, you’ll see that the kids are my mom and her younger sister on their grandparents’ farm. Mom was just about that age, or a little older, when Rilla gave her the hammer.


    2. You know how it goes – you get a thought, and the next thing you know, someone’s already thought it. Look at this quotation from photographer David DuChemin:

      “What would happen if we stuck with one camera for 10 years instead of switching it up every 2 or 3? How comfortable would that tool become in our hands if we’ve held it, and used it day-in and out, for longer than the now predictable cycle of planned obsolescence? And in that comfort, how much more would that gear get out of the way and allow us to do our work, making photographs?”

      Just like praticing an instrument, until you are comfortable enough to forget the instrument, and play the music.

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