In the NYT Magazine on Sunday, a photo feature on noodling, specifically the Okie Noodling Tournament. I’d been aware of catfish noodling (that’s ‘noodling for catfish’, not ‘noodling by catfish’), but I don’t recall having seen pictures of noodlers before. Of course, my interest was piqued by the term noodling — where did it come from? — and by other non-obvious uses of a verb noodle, such as the one in “I wasn’t really playing the piano, I was just noodling around”. As I should have expected, these musings quickly took me into murky waters (of the sort where catfish live).

First a photo of Mark Rowan, 47, of Broken Bow, Okla., with the winning catch (60.6 pounds) in the Okie Noodling Tournament.

From the NYT story:

There’s a T-shirt designed by the Oklahoma natives Buster (Big Cat Daddy) Garrett and his 15-year-old son, Dakota, that tries to capture noodling’s loopy ethos: ‘‘If You Ain’t Bleedin’, You Ain’t Leadin’.’’ When noodling, anglers root around blindly in the underwater holes where giant catfish hide, using their bare arms as bait.

And from the Wikipedia entry:

Noodling is fishing for catfish using only bare hands, practiced primarily in the southern United States. The noodler places his hand inside a discovered catfish hole. Many other names, such as catfisting, grabbling, graveling, hogging, dogging, gurgling, tickling and stumping, are used in different regions for the same activity.

The term “noodling”, although today used primarily towards the capture of flathead catfish, can and has been applied to all hand fishing methods, regardless of the method or species of fish sought. Noodling as a term has also been applied to various unconventional methods of fishing, such as any which do not use bait, rod & reel, speargun, etc., but this usage is much less common.

(Wikipedia has nothing to say about the origin of the term.)

There are several families of noodle words: the food family (including uses metaphorically referring to various kinds of limp or ineffectual things, including the penis); the head family, with slang nouns meaning ‘head, brain, intelligence’ and verbs derived from them; the fishing family; and the musical family. Already you can see some complexities in these domains.

For example, maybe the ‘ineffectual’ component of food noodle spilled over into, or contributed to, the ‘unserious’ component of musical noodle. Or maybe food noodle contributed to fishing noodle via a comparison of the bare arm used in noodling to the edible noodle. And so on. Speculation is only too easy.

The OED is not reassuring. For the fishing noodle, OED3 (June 2011) has:

noodle, v.4

Fishing. Chiefly U.S. regional (south.).

trans. and intr. To catch (fish or turtles) by searching with the bare hands, or with the aid of a gaff or fishing spear; to fish in this way. [cites from 1923 (Dialect Notes) on]

noodling, n.3

Chiefly U.S. regional (south.).

The action of noodle v.4; the sport of catching fish or turtles in this way. Also: the practice of catching turtles with a trap or line. [cites from 1937 (American Speech) on]

For the verb, the OED settles for “origin unknown”, but with some speculation:

Perhaps compare guddle v.2, or -le suffix 3.

On the suffix -le in question:

In Middle English and early modern English the suffix was extensively used (like the equivalent forms in Middle High German and modern German and in Dutch) to form vbs. expressing repeated action or movement, as in brastle, crackle, crumple, dazzle, hobble, niggle, paddle, sparkle, topple, wriggle, etc. Many of these formations are from echoic roots, as babble, cackle, gabble, giggle, guggle, mumble, etc.

As for guddle, it’s specifically Scottish. The meaning is in the right ballpark —

1. trans. To catch (fish) with the hands, by groping under the stones or banks of a stream. [from 1818 on]

2. intr. To grope for fish in this manner. [from 1881 on]

but the phonology is pretty distant, and the path of transmission is unclear. But there is the noun guddling (also Scottish), with its variant gumping:

1818    J. Hogg Brownie of Bodsbeck II. 170   ‘So this is what you call gumping?’ ‘Yes, sir, this is gumping, or guddling, ony o’ them ye like to ca’t’.

1895    Daily News 18 July 5/2   Horrible to say, Mr. Graham gives instructions for tickling trout, otherwise guddling, or gumping.

I’d be hesitant to connect fishing noodle to musical noodle, though there might be some play/sport connection.

The other terms Wikipedia gives for noodling are easier to rationalize, but this one resists analysis. It’s even possible that the word doesn’t have historical antecedents of the ordinary sort, but was playfully concocted from phonesthetic bits (like the medial -oo- and the final -le mentioned above) and/or pieces of other words (nook, doodle, whatever). Compare Ben Zimmer on “Birth of the nerd” in the Boston Globe a little while ago, quoting me:

Perhaps all of this etymologizing is beside the point. Arnold Zwicky, a linguist at Stanford University, says that whimsical words like nerd “don’t necessarily have a historical source of the ordinary sort,” but instead may be inventions drawing on “distant echoes of an assortment of existing words.” A little Mortimer Snerd here, a little nerts! there, maybe even a soupçon of Seuss, and voilà! A nerd is born.

Much the same might be true of musical noodle, which the OED labels as “origin uncertain” rather than “origin unknown”. In this case, OED3 (December 2003) tries to distinguish several different lexical items and speculates inconclusively about all of them. A sampling:

noodle, v.5 [Perhaps < German regional (Leipzig) nudeln to play or sing a piece of music in a low undertone or in an improvisatory way (1881 or earlier), or perhaps the same word as noodle v.2 In later use probably also influenced by doodle v.1. Compare slightly earlier noodle n.3]

1. trans. and intr. Chiefly Jazz. To play or sing (a piece of music) in a tentative, playful, or improvisatory way; (also) to play an elaborate or decorative series of notes. Also fig. [from 1937 on]

noodle, v.2 [Perhaps a blend of Shetland Scots nune to hum, sing softly, and doodle v.2; or perhaps < an unattested Norn reflex (with metathesis of the consonant cluster -lt-) of the early Scandinavian word represented by Swedish regional gnylta, gnölta, gnullta to grunt, beg persistently. Compare noodle v.5]

Sc. (Shetland).
trans. and intr. To sing (a tune) in a low undertone; to hum. [from 1897 on]

noodle, n.3 [Probably < noodle v.5 (although this is first attested slightly later). In later use probably also influenced by doodle n.3.]

Chiefly Jazz.
A trill or improvisation on an instrument. [from 1926 on]

I hope this is clearer to you than it is to me.

4 Responses to “noodling”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Jeff Shaumeyer on Facebook:

    Sometimes string players with itchy fingers keep them out of trouble by playing little figures, or scales, or fragments over and over again, often quietly as described. This is what I’ve long known as “noodling”. How interesting to learn that one can do it with catfish.

  2. Rick Wojcik Says:

    You should also consider the verb to canoodle, which seems closer in meaning to “nuzzle” than to bare-handed fishing.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Hmmm. Canoodle ‘cuddle’ is a real possibility. Compare tickling for bare-handed fishing. And the timing is good; canoodle is attested from 1864 on, and it’s American.

      The etymology of canoodle is itself unknown, though Green’s Dictionary of Slang suggests that it might be based on cuddle — presumably by playful expansion.

  3. Venn diagramming for nerds « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] a little while ago in a Boston Globe column, “Birth of the Nerd”, quoted on this blog here) and links to this entertaining Venn […]

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