Caricature of Gabriel Harvey from Haue with you to Saffron-walden. Or, Gabriell Harueys hunt is vp (1596), by Thomas Nashe. Entitled The picture of Gabriell Harvey as he is readie to let fly upon Ajax, this caricature depicts him rushing to the toilet at the thought of Nashe’s publication. Ajax was a pun on a jackes, slang for a toilet (in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the name of the Greek hero would have been homophonous with a jakes when stressed on the second syllable).
The phrase (as) fit as a fiddle means in very good health.
But fit has had the sense in good ‘form’ or condition only since the 19th century. Before that, it meant only convenient, becoming, right and proper (i.e. fitting).
This explains why the earliest forms of the expression, recorded in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, are not only as fit as a fiddle, but also as right and as fine as a fiddle.
The English pamphleteer, poet and playwright Thomas Nashe (1567-circa 1601) is the first known user of the expression. In Haue with you to Saffron-walden. Or, Gabriell Harueys hunt is vp (1596), he wrote of a
methode as right as a fiddle.
The English playwright William Haughton (died 1605) used it in English-men for my money: or, A pleasant comedy, called, A woman will haue her will (1598):
This is excellent ynfayth, as fit as a Fiddle.
This is excellent, this is as fine as a Fiddle.
It was also used in The Batchelars Banquet: Or A Banquet for Batchelars: Wherein is prepared sundry daintie dishes to furnish their Table, curiously drest, and seriously serued in (1603) (cambric denotes a kind of fine white linen, originally made at Cambray in Flanders):
Comes downe mistresse Nurse as fine as a farthing fiddle, in her petticoate and kertle, hauing on a white wastcoate, with a flaunting cambricke ruff around her neck.
One can only guess why a fiddle was thought to be particularly fit in this sense. It could have been because it was a piece of skilled craftsmanship and therefore to be admired, or because its playing required dexterity.
Another expression was to have one’s face made of a fiddle, meaning to be irresistibly charming. It appears for example in A Collection of English Proverbs (1678), by John Ray:
I think his face is made of a fiddle, every one that looks on him loves him.
According to B. A. Phythian in A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1993), a face “made of a fiddle”
was always wreathed in smiles, as a fiddle has a much-curled shape. The origins of the modern expression [= fit as a fiddle] probably lie somewhere among these associations, assisted—as is often the case with popular expressions—by alliteration.
Other obsolete proverbial expressions with fiddle include:
– The least boy always carries the biggest fiddle: the burden is put on those that are least able to bear it, because they are least able to resist its imposition.
– He has got the fiddle, but not the stick (i.e. the fiddlestick): for example, he has got the books, but not the learning to make use of them.
– To hang up one’s fiddle: to retire from business, give up an undertaking.
– To hang the fiddle at the door or to hang up one’s fiddle when one comes home: said of a person who is merry and cheerful abroad, but surly and ill-tempered in their family.
– Friends are like fiddle-strings, they must not be screwed too tight.
– As well try to borrow a fiddle at a wakes.
– There’s many a good tune played on an old fiddle.
– He that lives in hope, dances without a fiddle.
– A fool can dance without a fiddle.
– Every fool is a fiddle to the company.
– If we dance to every fiddle, we shall soon be lame in both legs. Cf. To dance to every man’s (or fool’s) pipe (or whistle).
– A sow to a fiddle. Cf. Latin asinus ad lyram, an ass to a lyre.