The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you a fuddy-duddy?

Q: Your recent post about reduplicatives reminds me of a conversation (a spat, to be honest) not long ago about “fuddy-duddy.” A man I met called me that and I took it as a negative remark. He argued that it’s not negative and that it’s almost an endearment. Is this just over-sensitivity on my part?

A: Technically, “fuddy-duddy” is a negative term, but it’s one that’s often used affectionately. And some of the examples in standard dictionaries have people referring to themselves as “fuddy-duddies.” In fact, we’ve sometimes called ourselves “fuddy-duddies” because of our love of Victorian novels, Baroque music, and Renaissance art.

Standard dictionaries define a “fuddy-duddy” as someone who’s old-fashioned, fussy, pompous, or boring. However, the noun phrase is usually used in a lighthearted way to refer to an old-fashioned person, as in these examples from Lexico, the former Oxford Dictionaries Online:

  • “He probably thinks I’m an old fuddy-duddy.”
  • “Apparently the constitution is just for stick-in-the-mud old white fuddy-duddies.”
  • “I didn’t want to appear like a holier-than-thou fuddy-duddy so I made pleasant small talk with Tonya’s date as though I approved of these sort of shenanigans.”
  • “In the market where these contemporary artists ply their trade, the age-old discipline of drawing human figures is considered a rather fuddy-duddy exercise.”
  • “Perhaps I’m turning into a bit of a fuddy-duddy boring would-rather-stay-at-home kind of guy.”

We think you’re probably oversensitive about this. We don’t believe we’ve ever heard “fuddy-duddy” used other than light-heartedly. Serious critics are more likely to use nouns like “diehard,” “obstructionist,” and “reactionary,” or adjectives like “antediluvian,” “antiquated,” “decrepit,” “moth-eaten,” and “superannuated.”

We mentioned “fuddy-duddy” briefly in our recent post about why people say “zig-zag” rather than “zag-zig.” Both “fuddy-duddy” and “zig-zag” are examples of reduplication, the repetition of similar words or word elements, perhaps with some alteration.

For example, “goody-goody,” with no alteration in the elements, is a simple (or “copy”) reduplicative. One like “zig-zag,” with the vowel sound altered in the repetition, is known as an “ablaut” (that is, vowel) reduplicative. And one like “fuddy-duddy,” with the consonant altered in the repetition, is a rhyming reduplicative.

As for the etymology, “fuddy-duddy” is of unknown origin, the Oxford English Dictionary says. But it cites this entry from A Glossary of the Words and Phrases Pertaining to the Dialect of Cumberland (1899), by William Dickinson and Edward William Prevost: “Duddy fuddiel, a ragged fellow.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang also cites that phrase in the Cumberland dialect (spoken in northern England), but adds a question mark.

In searches of newspaper and book databases, we’ve found examples of “fuddy-duddy” or “fuddydud” that date back to the early 1870s, but none of the early sightings mean old-fashioned. The earliest example we’ve seen with that meaning is from a letter by a Bostonian in the Sept. 2, 1898, issue of the Sun, a New York newspaper:

“The Sun is more truly than any New York paper an American paper. Anger is often a healthy sensation, in that it proves a man to be alive. At home, when I desire the excitement, I read our old fuddy-duddy Transcript, with its wailings over the advance of the nation along its natural path.”

We’ll end with this recent example: “It’s OK. You can call me a fuddy-duddy. I’m not offended. What I am offended by is what I have to put up with—and you do, too—on a nearly daily basis.” (From an Oct. 5, 2019, column by Heather Ziegler in the Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register in West Virginia. Her gripe? Dirty words on T-shirts.)

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