I’ve used this term since my childhood, but never considered the origin or even the meaning. I used it on anyone who didn’t want to go along with my plans.
If any term sounds old and English, it must be this one. But most word hounds agree fuddy-duddy appears to be of American origin, possibly via Scotland, nor is it especially old. The first record found is from the Texas newspaper The Galveston Daily News, 1889:
“Look here; I’m Smith – Hamilton Smith. I’m a minister and I try to do about right … I object to being represented as an old fuddy-duddy.”
That usage – without any accompanying explanation – seems to suggest that the readership would have been expected to have been familiar with it. That is quite possible, there are several citations in American newspapers from the end of the 19th century that relate to a pair of fictional wags called Fuddy and Duddy. A string of their rather weak gags was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript. Here’s an example from a November 1895 edition:
Fuddy: So Miss Dandervecken is going to marry an Englishman. A lord, I suppose?
Duddy: Well, no, not exactly: but I understand that he’s often as drunk as a lord.
Duddy was a Scottish term meaning ragged – duds having been used to refer to rough tattered clothes since the 15th century. Fud, or fuddy, was a Scots dialect term for buttocks. In 1833, the Scots poet James Ballantyne wrote The Wee Raggit Laddie:
Wee stuffy, stumpy, dumpie laddie,
Thou urchin elfin, bare an’ duddy,
Thy plumpit kite an’ cheek sae ruddy
Are fairly baggit,
Although the breekums on thy fuddy
Are e’en right raggit.
The full-on Scots dialect in that sentimental, Burns influenced rhyme is difficult to translate precisely. The gist of the meaning is:
Poor scruffy little lad, bare and ragged, your wet belly and red cheeks are swollen and the trousers on your buttocks are torn.
There is a British term – ‘duddy fuddiel’, which is also recorded from around the same date. William Dickinson’s A glossary of words and phrases pertaining to the dialect of Cumberland, 1899, has:
“Duddy fuddiel, a ragged fellow.”
There may be a link between ‘duddy fuddiel’ and ‘fuddy-duddy’ but, as they don’t mean exactly the same thing, we can’t be certain.
One thing we can be sure about; that the cartoon character Elmer Fudd inherited the name from the phrase. ‘Fuddy-duddy’ was in general circulation in the US well before the character was created in around 1940 and the expression accords with his old-fashioned and obsessive temperament.
In a rather sad sequel to the Boston Transcript’s role in the coining of ‘fuddy-duddy’, Time magazine reported in 1939 that a survey commissioned by the paper found that, “the most frequent word used by advertisers to describe the paper was fuddy-duddy”.
Today we use it to describe a stuffy and old-fashioned person. The older I get, the more I have to fight my growing fuddy duddy traits.