Friday 28 January 2011

Survival of the Fittest Fiddle

A little note on Darwin. When we think of the adjective fit we are inclined to think of someone in jogging shorts and other such hideousness. Fit to us means physically capable and the fittest person is the fastest runner, or something of the sort. This is not the sense in which Darwin* used the phrase.

We still use phrases like fit and proper parent or fit for purpose or not fit to hold office, and that was the original meaning of the word fit. It meant appropriate. The fittest word, is the word most appropriate to the situation.

As Stephen Jay Gould once remarked, it doesn't matter how wonderfully developed a fish is, if all the oceans dry up it will die. Similarly, Darwin couldn't have cared less whether a Galapagos turtle could run fast, only that it was well suited to its environment.

If the cap fits, it doesn't mean that it's been to gym.

How did the word get from one to the other? On horseback. Or more precisely, via horse racing. If a horse was in fit condition for a race then it was fit in the modern sense.

And fiddles? Nobody is quite sure why fiddles are fit, although it is certain that the older sense was being used. There also used to be a phrase as fine as a farthing fiddle, which makes more sense and is more fun to pronounce.
The Inky Fool contemplating the gym

*The phrase pops up in the fifth edition of On The Origin Of Species, although it was in fact invented by a chap called Herbert Spencer, who was trying to describe the ideas set out in the first edition of On The Origin Of Species. So it's Darwin adopting a paraphrase about Darwin, if you see what I mean.


  1. The original meaning has come back in fashion of course, with the phrase "not fit for purpose" so much used now by politicians that it's become a cliche. I can't remember who kicked off with that phrase - wasn't it a Labour minister reviewing the Civil Service?

  2. John Reid said it about the Home Office two weeks after becoming Home Secretary in 2006.In the same speech he also used that stalwart of the present political lexicon "dysfunctional".

  3. In my neck of the woods of the US, when describing someone's physique we would say "physically fit" instead of just "fit" so we don't have this difficulty.

  4. Do people in the UK still use "fit" to mean attractive? Or was that just when I was at school (15 years or so ago now...)?

  5. I was wondering that myself (and we're about the same age). I don't recall hearing a girl described as fit for a while, but that may only be because I'm not a teenager any more.

  6. I am fairly sure that it is still used, predominantly by Londoners under the age of 20, and often preceded by the word 'well'.