Spirited words

Fit as a ... violinist?

Word historians are not sure whether the original expression was 'fit as a fiddle' or 'fit as a fiddler.' In any case, 200 years ago, people thought violins were objects of great beauty when well-crafted and tuned. If someone was as 'fit as a fiddle' or as fit as the fiddler who had the stamina to play for a dance all night long, that person was in vibrant good health.

Perhaps no musical instrument appears in as many common English expressions as the fiddle. Consider: fiddlesticks, fiddling around, playing second fiddle, fiddle-faddle, and fiddle-dee-dee. Any more?

A pink Belgian bird

It was the flamingo's bright pink plumage that earned it its original name, 'flamenco.' That's Spanish for 'Fleming,' or a native of Flanders, a region of Belgium. This long-legged New World bird was so named because it reminded early Spanish explorers of the ruddy complexion of the Dutch foreigners who had settled in southern Spain at the time. The Flemish were also well-known for their flamboyant clothing. From this liveliness came a homonym - flamenco, a fast-paced, gypsylike dance.

A zest for flavoring

You may not often see it on a menu, but any good chef knows what 'zest' is. From the French, this word figuratively known as 'relish' or 'gusto' means an orange or lemon peel used in flavoring drinks and food. By the 18th century, that sense of piquancy from a citrus fruit was extended to refer to any intense quality that adds enjoyment or liveliness to an experience, which is the word's more common usage today.

SOURCES: Webster's Word Histories; The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, by Robert Barnhart; Dictionary of Word Origins, by Jordan Almond; 'A Browser's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,' by Ivor Evans; 'The Second Browser's Dictionary,' by John Ciardi; The Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins; 'Loose Cannons and Red Herrings,' by Robert Claiborne; 'Why You Say It.' by Webb Garrison.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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