“Fiddly”; “Fiddly Bits”

On Twitter, NOOB friend Jan Freeman reported some British colleagues describing a balky pin as “fiddly,” and remarked, “There’s a word we could use in AmE.”

It turns out we already have it, more or less.

First, the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition: “Requiring time or dexterity; pernickety.” The first citation is from Blackwood’s Magazine in 1926 but the second isn’t until 1960, from The Times– “‘Fiddly things’ should be done by automatic machines.” On my own, I found a 1958 quotation from the same newspaper, referring to the practice of picking snowdrops (the flower), and also, interestingly, modifying “things”: “They were fiddly things and it was cold work.” In any case, that’s about when the word started its ascent–in the U.K., not the U.S., as seen in this Google Ngram Viewer chart:

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 9.38.23 AM

The word’s first appearance in the New York Times (other than from British writers or quotes from British people) came in 1984, in a article about cooking grand dishes: “It must be a dish that is prepared infrequently and that requires long, slow, thoughful, but no necessarily fussy or fiddly preparation.” (Pairing fiddly with “fussy” suggests readers may have needed a contextual definition.)

It doesn’t show up again till 1996, but since then has been used 56 times, most recently today, in another food article, about making ravioli at home: “The process is fiddly, but the result is worth the effort.”

The word turns out to be popular not only in food but also in computers and gaming. The question, “What the hell does ‘fiddly’ mean?” on a website about board-game war games generated 92 responses. One succinct definition: “My understanding of the word is ‘full of tiny components’, or ‘requires a lot of small actions (like upkeep) that get annoying after a while’. Basically, things that get in the way of the actual enjoyment of the game.”

Just the other day, my daughter Elizabeth Yagoda used “fiddly” unselfconsciously. Bottom line, it’s out there as a NOOB.

But that’s not the case with the phrase that’s replaced “fiddly things” of the earlier quotations. Indeed, I might nominate it as the quintessential British expression. One of the first uses in the Google Books database is a 1952 quote from a building journal: “Notre Dame Catheral may have more gargoyles and fiddly bits, the Empire State Building may be higher, but none of them compare with the utilitarian might of a machine house roof.”

“Fiddly bits” is inescapable in the Commonwealth. It has been used 32 times in The Times since 2002, including this line from a letter to the editor: “While I am perfectly happy to iron my own shirts, etc, women’s clothes, with all those fiddly bits and pieces all over the place, defeat me.” It is also the name of an Australian spray paint

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An American can say “fiddly” with absolute impunity, but “fiddly bits” is very much–and probably will remain–in the outlier stage.

11 responses to ““Fiddly”; “Fiddly Bits”

  1. I’ve been using fiddly bits for decades and have always been American — I did have a lot of British friends online on talkers back in the mid/late 1990s though and it could come from that time period. That being said, a lot of the folks I know use that phrase as well — mostly sf/gamer geeks, if that makes a difference. British terms do tend to show up with much greater frequency in science fiction fandom, I’ve noticed.

  2. I’d be very interested to learn why you think this is so.

  3. As a Canadian who grew up in Scotland, I would agree that fiddly is used in respect of small things that are difficult to access or handle. I used it yesterday when asking someone to help me with the clasp on a necklace because it was “fiddly”. I don’t know if you have already written about the difference between the UK use of “pernickety” and the American “persnickety” which is also common in Canada. It see,s like a strange difference. When I say that something is “pernickety” I notice that people often try to helpfully correct my pronunciation by using the word itself but making sure that they insert the “s”. Most of the time, I say nothing but if I am being a condescending jerk – as everyone is sometimes – I will say, “Oh you pronounce it the American way. I use the Scottish pronunciation”. And then I feel ashamed.

  4. I grew up using and hearing fiddly in that sense. Born and raised in the SE US. I’m 75 years old and have no British connection at all.

  5. My boyfriend (Scottish) uses “niggly bits.” I find myself using it sometimes as well now.

    • Julian Barker

      I think something niggly is more annoying or irritating than something that is merely fiddly.

    • I’m Northern English and live in Scotland. To me ‘Niggly’ has more of a annoying/worrying connotation. To niggle away at something is to pick and worry away at it – ‘a niggling doubt’ will vex you. I have never heard of a ‘fiddly doubt’

      • Julian Barker

        Yes, that’s what I was trying to get at – though I’d say that the annoying thing niggles me, rather than that I niggle at it. (Southern English, with a touch of Welsh)

  6. The popularity of Douglas Adams’ Hitchiker’s Guide to the galaxy may have helped spread the spread of the word ‘fiddly’. In the first book, planet designer Slartibartfast is justly proud of having designed Norway. “Doing the coastlines was always my favourite. Used to have endless fun doing all the fiddly bits and fjords… “

  7. Could I just add that I have never heard or seen the word ‘balky’ before, and had to look it up. I thought ‘a balky pin’ might be a particular type of pin (like a safety pin or something), but I find that ‘balky’ is simply an adjective meaning stubborn or difficult. Thanks for that!

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