When people care enough to recommend a book, I find, it always pays to read that book. Then I get the benefit of the writing, the knowledge, and the imagination or the exploration, of the author. And I learn something about the recommender and what she cares about, or what he finds fascinating.
So just now, I am reading a wonderful book, A Gentleman in Moscow, at the suggestion of a wonderful friend.
Amor Towles wrote A Gentleman in Moscow; it follows his debut novel, Rules of Civility, which was a New York Times bestseller. That was a great read, too, but A Gentleman in Moscow is very different. It’s set, of course, in Moscow—in one hotel in Moscow,—and it spans the time from 1922 until 1964 or so. I haven’t finished the book yet, but I believe that, within its pages, our hero, Alexander Ilyich Rostov, former poet and count, never leaves the hotel once he has been, at the very outset of the story, sequestered there under house arrest.
And yet, there’s no sense of ‘stiflement’ or constriction. Instead, it seems that the Count has discovered an ever-expanding world within the five floors of his realm.
Very early on in the book, someone suggested that the Count might be a little set in his ways. In fact, the term ‘fuddy-duddy’ was used to describe him.
Fuddy-duddy rang in my cranium for the next couple of days, driving me, finally, to look it up and figure it out. Where on earth did a phrase like THAT come from, and how did it enter into common usage?
So I search the internet and find an interesting discussion at phrases.org, a UK site. They define fuddy-duddy as meaning, “a stuffy or foolishly old-fashioned person,” and I suppose one could see how a member of royalty, confronted with the people’s revolution, might be assumed to be longing, foolishly and nostalgically, for the old ways…although that’s not the case here, in this book’s hero.
And where did fuddy-duddy come from? Turns out, says phrases.org, that it’s a United States term with Scottish roots. Along the line somewhere, someone put together two Scottish words and came up with a meaning unrelated to either of them.
Duddy is a Scots term for raggedy clothes. ‘Duds’ has been in use since the 1400’s, meaning rough, worn garb (a bit different from the way we use that term today, as in, “Nice duds!”)
Fuddy is a Scots term for a part of human anatomy located in the back, rear region.
So a fuddy-duddy, literally translated, would mean, if you’ll excuse me, a raggedy ass. (Cumberlandians, in 1800’s England, called a raggedy fellow a ‘duddy fuddiel.”) We don’t translate it literally, clearly: we know that no self-respecting fuddy-duddy would be caught in public in raggedy clothing. They might wear the SAME clothing over and over, but it would be impeccably pressed and mended.
So somehow the terms slipped over to the States and got misunderstood, or someone used them in a different context and another someone assigned the term a whole wrong meaning. There followed cartoony kinds of characters named Fuddy and Duddy who were horrified at any kind of progressive change, and later, certainly, Warner Brother’s Elmer Fudd, the quintessential stick-in-the mud, represents the meaning we’ve come to apply to fuddy-duddy.
And what about stick-in-the-mud? If one doesn’t like to have that fuddy-duddy derriere connotation lingering when describing a hidebound person, resistant to change, one might prefer ‘stick-in-the-mud.’ This term, the grammarist.com tells me, harks back to the 1700’s, as a mild admonishment: ie, “Don’t be a stick-in-the-mud.”
That always made me imagine a big old branch upended in a thick, muddy swamp, but here, the ‘stick’ is verb, not noun. It refers to a person so mired in habit that he or she can’t budge.
Two other terms, Mark suggested when I brought up the fuddy-duddy debate, for those of the ‘don’t make me change’ variety, might be party pooper and Debbie Downer. So I looked those up, too.
NPR’s show, “That’s What They Say;” with experts Rena Miller and Anne Curzon, looked at party pooper’s origin. It is also a US invention, and, they say, it first shows up in the 1940’s. In fact, it became so used in that decade that Newsweek declared ‘party pooper’ to be taking the place of terms like ‘wet blanket’ or ‘wall flower.’
There’s some confusion over party pooper’s origins, too. The ‘poop’ part could mean exhausted, as in, “I’m staying home from the party; I’m pooped!”
Or it could be a term of derision, as when someone pooh-poohs a concept. That would look more like this: “Oh, pooh. I’m not going to THAT party.”
Or it could, grammarist.com tells me, circle back to that derriere kind of connotation as in, “Oh, poopy. No parties for ME.”
Maybe calling someone a Debbie Downer is safer. That originated in the US, too, on Saturday Night Live in the 1970’s. Rachel Dratch famously placed a character named (duh) Debbie Downer, who had a saddened, deflating retort for every bit of good news relayed or every possible next step suggested.
In the very first sketch, Debbie ruins a family reunion at Disneyworld, and the result is so hysterical that seasoned actors can’t help but break the wall and laugh. (If you haven’t seen it, you really ought to watch the Debbie Downer debut here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfE93xON8jk )
But a Debbie Downer isn’t exactly a fuddy-duddy. Debbie’s intent on bringing everyone else down to her level of maudlin sorrow, and a fuddy-duddy is intent on preventing change.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it, that all these terms originate in the US? Do we have a particular intolerance for those who linger longingly in the land of tradition? Or for those who just aren’t FUN?
At any rate. I can tell you without, I think, spoiling anything, that Alexander Ilyich Rostov is far from being a fuddy-duddy, a stick-in-the-mud, a party pooper, OR a Debbie Downer. In fact, he’s one of the most amazingly flexible and adaptable characters I’ve ever met in fiction. A Gentleman in Moscow demonstrates that it’s not distance or geography, but personal depth, that creates a universe and then peoples it with characters both ordinary and amazing.
So I am going back to steal a half hour’s reading time before dinner. I’m awfully glad Kathie recommended this book.