When you’re fit as a fiddle, you’re healthy and well. Ask any musician with a violin or fiddle and he or she will confirm that a fit fiddle is one that’s in excellent shape. And how does one keep a fiddle fit? As with any musical instrument, a well maintained fiddle is one the owner keeps in top condition which means the sounds emanating from the instrument will always equal the talent and ability of the person playing it.
When Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, there were those who were concerned over his health … not because he appeared to be suffering from any health issues, but because he was far from being a young man at the time. However, the Montreal Gazette of October 31, 1981 published a news story that was picked up from UPI that stated that all was well with the President. The article was titled, “Reagan Fit As A Fiddle” and the first paragraph of the story read:
Two days of physical examinations at the National Naval Medical Center found U.S. President Ronald Reagan to be “fit as a fiddle,” a presidential aide said yesterday.
Over the years, Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia ran newspaper ads in major newspapers across the U.S., and these ads advocated taking Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia to cure indigestion woes. In fact, in the Spokesman Review of October 22, 1942 the ad copy read in part:
Say goodbye to those “morning blues.” Next time you overeat, or stay up late at a gay party, take Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia at bedtime and wake up feeling “fit as a fiddle.”
The saying was used in other newspaper advertisements. Going back to May 12, 1909, the Pittsburgh Press ran one for Hires with the headline copy, “As Fit As A Fiddle On A Fine Spring Day.”
On May 21, 1888, the Evening Post newspaper of Wellington in New Zealand published an article in the Sporting section titled, “Turf Notes” and written by the anonymous reported, Vigilant. The news was that the Wanganui Steeplechase had nine horses entered, and barring accidents, racing fans could expect to see all ready to run at post time. One horse in particular seemed to be of enough interest to warrant mention by the reporter.
Faugh-a-Baalagh, 11st 12lb, is generally voted well in, and as he will have T. Lyford up on him and is reported as fit as a fiddle, whatever beats him will, I think, get the stakes.
Volume 15 of the “American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine” published in January 1844, discussed the strengths of a horse owned by Mr. G. Salvin. In Monday’s race, the odds were 13 to 4 against The Cure, and 3 to 1 against The Cure in Thursday’s race, making him an equal favorite with another horse by the name of Ithuriel.
The Cure is an extraordinary good horse, and we have reason to believe the stable money is upon him. If so, and his partly only mean it, then will our anticipations be realised in seeing him not far from No. 1. The distance is the only obstacle in his path, but his friends assert that makes no difference. He is, we hear, as “fit as a fiddle,” and none the worse of his being a little off at Newcastle. It is understood that Sam Rogers will now have the steering of the “little gentleman” for the St. Leger.
English naturalist John Ray (29 November 1627 – 17 January 1705) — known as John Wray until 1670 — included the idiom in his book ,”A Compleat Collection Of English Proverbs” first published in 1670. Before it was included in John Ray’s book, it was used by English Elizabethan dramatist and pamphleteer, Thomas Dekker (1572 – 25 August 1632) in “The Batchelor’s Banquet” published in 1603 with a bit of a twist. Instead, the word fine was inserted for fit, however the sense of being in top-notch shape was clear in the dialogue.
Then comes downe mistresse Nurse as fine as a farthing fiddle, in her petticoate and kertle, having on a white waistcoat, with a flaunting cambricke ruff about her neck, who liks a Doctris in facultie comes thus upon him. Good Lord Sir, what paines you take, here is no bodie can please our mistresse bot your selfe: I will allure you on my credit that I doe what I can, yet for my life I cannot I, any way content her.
And in English playwright William Haughton’s Elizabethan era stage play, “Englishmen For My Money: A Pleasant Comedy Called A Woman Will Have Her Will” published in 1598, the idiom appears. In the scene, we find the Italian Aluaro, the Frenchman Delion, and Frisco, who is described as Pisaro’s man and a clown. Pisaro is a Portingale, and the story has to do with this three daughters — Laurentia, Marina, and Mathea — and their suitors.
In Leaden-hall? I trow I shall meete with you anone: In Leaden-hall? What a simple Asse is this Frenchman. Some more of this: Where are you sir?
Moy I be here in Vanshe-streete.
This is excellent ynfayth, as fit as a Fiddle: I in Tower-streete, you in Leaden-hall, and th third in Fanchurch-streete; and yet all three heare one another, and all three speake together: either wee must be all three in Leaden-hall, or all three in Tower-streete, or all three in Fanchurch-streete; or all three Fooles.
The word fiddle is derived from the Old English word fithele, and in Old German it was fiedel. The word came into vogue during the 14th century when Medieval fiddles became popular street musical instruments, due in large part to their portability. Fiddles during the Middle Ages were described as having four strings, a hollow body, and an unfretted fingerboard, and was played with a bow.
It was an instrument equally favored by waits (official town musicians employed by the large English towns in which they lived), minstrels (who were first and foremost entertainers who were also musicians, and who traveled from town to town), and troubadours (who, even though they were musicians, interacted with royalty and nobility).
It can be guessed that those musicians who played fiddle — especially for aristocracy — would want their instrument to be in the best condition possible, and fit for performances. Although Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published use of fit as a fiddle than the one found in William Haughton’s comedy, because it was used in the play, it was obviously an expression that was already known to the general population by the late 1500s.
Considering how language evolved during this era, it is very likely that the idiom most likely came into vogue during the early to mid-1500s.