The Grammarphobia Blog

Noodling around

Q: In one of your postings, you mention “noodling in old newspaper archives.” It got me wondering about how “noodle” came to be used, both as a noun and a verb, to represent the mind and its activities.

A: There’s a lot of noodling in English, and much of it has to do with the head or the mind.

The verb “noodle,” meaning to fool around or waste time, has been in use since 1854, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED says the word comes from the noun “noodle,” meaning “a stupid or silly person; a fool, an idiot,” a word that was first used in print in 1720.

That noun’s origin is uncertain, but the OED says it may be a variant of an earlier one, “noddle,” which meant the head (or the back of the head) and was frequently used “in contexts suggesting emptiness or stupidity.”

“Noddle” was first recorded in the 1400s and may be related to the verb “nod” (circa 1390), meaning to briefly incline the head. The origin of “nod” is also unknown, but it could be related to a Middle High German verb, notten, meaning to move to and fro, or shake.

There was even a noun “noodleism” in the 19th century, meaning a silly action or idea. The OED‘s first citation is from a British newspaper in 1829: “Lord Eldon … rose to disavow participation in such extreme noodleisms.”

But a “noodle” that’s more relevant to your question is the verb that means to sing or play music in an inventive, improvisatory way.

This usage was first recorded in 1937. It was often used to describe jazz performances, but it was also used figuratively in other contexts.

Ever since the 1940s, to “noodle” (or “noodle around”) has meant to reflect on or ponder something, or to experiment, perhaps unproductively or without any particular direction.

And in case you’re wondering, the edible “noodle” comes from the German nudel, which is probably a variant of knödel (a dumpling; literally a “small knot”).

The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from a 1779 entry in the journal of Lady Mary Coke: “A noodle soup – this I begged to be explained and was told it was made only of veal with lumps of bread boiled in it.”

As a pasta lover, I take exception to that comment about “lumps of bread.”

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