I’m fascinated by words and their origins, so here I am going to muse about the words paddle, peddle, piddle, poodle and puddle.
Partly this is because as a journalist I use Teeline shorthand, in which we usually leave out all the vowels, so those words would all be rendered the same in Teeline, as PDL. In transcribing, I would naturally say paddle, peddle, piddle, poodle, puddle as I go through the possibilities in my head.
There is also a certain attraction in gently naughty words like piddle, a word that reminds me of some old men I once watched in Pont Aven in Brittany, playing boules under the plane trees. On several occasions one told another that his playing was “pipi” – the French equivalent of poor as piddle!
But I am going to start my inquiries not with piddle but with puddle, which actually has a pretty certain origin.
A PUDDLE is a small muddy pool and the word comes from the Old English pudd, meaning a ditch.
The word has come to have other meanings, too. It can be a mixture of clay and sand, or a verb meaning to make watertight with clay, or in an iron foundry it is the word for converting pig-iron into wrought-iron by stirring it when it’s in a molten state.
Then we come to PIDDLE, which means to urinate. Although my dictionary gives no origins for the word, I don’t think it’s much of a leap from puddle to piddle – before modern sanitation piddling would create a puddle on the ground.
From urinating it’s again not much of a leap to “piddling about” meaning to waste time or “deal in trifles” as it says in the old dictionary.
There is another related sort of piddle in several place names in Dorset and Worcestershire. Here the word just comes from the Old English for a marsh or fen (surely related to that pudd mentioned above).
In Dorset these places are found around the River Piddle – places like Piddletrenthide, Piddlehinton and the related Puddletown, Tolpuddle, Affpuddle and Briantspuddle.
There is even a Dorset Piddle brewery at Piddlehinton, selling beers with names like Jimmy Riddle and Silent Slasher. It gives great pleasure to walk into a pub and ask for a pint of Piddle…
There is also a Wyre Piddle Brewery in Worcestershire, whose beer names are associated with an old children’s rhyme in the village which went:
Upton Snodsbury, Peopleton and Crowle,
Wyre Piddle, North Piddle
And Piddle in the Hole
As well as Piddle in the Hole, they brew Piddle in the Wind, Piddle in the Dark and Piddle in the Snow.
Now we come to PEDDLE, which means to go about as a pedlar. The noun comes from the Middle English pedlere, probably an alteration of the Medieval Latin word peddere, which ultimately came from the Latin pes, ped-, meaning foot (as in pedestrian). There is also a suggestion that the word ped meant a pannier or hamper.
The verb peddle came later, partly as a “back-formation” from pedlar and partly, some might say, from piddle, as a pedlar sells trifles (oh no, not those trifles again…) We have re-created the noun peddler from the verb and in modern usage this has taken over from pedlar, although I prefer the archaic spelling.
A pedlar is one who goes about with a pack of goods for sale – technically one who is on foot and carries the goods himself, as opposed to a hawker, who has a horse and cart.
I think of pedlars as a staple of fairytales, probably because they are outsiders and wanderers. A pedlar sells Aladdin his magic lamp and the wicked queen appears as an old pedlar woman to Snow White, offering her a poisoned girdle, a poisoned comb and finally a poisoned apple…
A word on PEDAL. This means “of the foot” and also comes from Latin, from pes, ped- pedalis. It also means a lever pressed by the foot, as on a bicycle or a piano.
The word PADDLE seems to me to have puddle connections, as it means to wade about in semi-liquid, although my Chambers 20th Century Dictionary says it comes from the Dutch pad, meaning a path. From this we get the verb “to pad” meaning to trudge along, and a “footpad” meaning a highwayman – a robber on foot on the path.
The other meaning of paddle is a small, long-handled spade, or a broad, short oar. It is also a verb. Mr Trafford, my old Latin master at school, who was full of wisdom, used to say “Love many, trust few, always paddle your own canoe”.
The origin is said to be obscure but I would think a paddle is a small pad (a word which comes from the Greek for foot, pous, podos). But again I could almost make up some etymological link with puddle, since generally you paddle in water.
Finally we come to POODLE, a breed of pet dog which has curly hair, often clipped into standard patterns. Satisfyingly, I find this brings us back to puddles, as the name comes from the German word pudel, from the Low German pudeln, meaning to paddle or splash.
It was originally known as a pudelhund, or puddle hound (in Dutch it’s poedelhond). Poodles were, surprisingly, working dogs – retrievers in water, where there curly coats gave them some protection.
That’s also why they were clipped, to maintain that protective coat but to stop their long curly hair impeding their movement in water.