Noodling around

Thanks to once more to Steven Schwartzman of for suggesting a mnemonic for the order of the planets without Pluto: “My very educated mother just served us noodles.” That’s using the old noodle, Steven.

Hmm…how did the word for a long strip of pasta come to mean the head?  Sounds like old-fashioned slang, maybe from the 1920s; doesn’t it? Turns out the term noodle for ‘the head’ predates the pasta noodle and has a different origin.

“Noodle” as slang for ‘head,’ dates from at least 1762, when Laurence Sterne used it in Tristram Shandy: “What can have got into that precious noodle of thine?” Even earlier it was used colloquially for ‘a stupid or silly person.’ Charles Sadwell, in Sham Prince (1720) uses the classic line, “But, my Dear, ha, ha, ha, had you seen how like Ninny-hammers and Noodles they look’d when the Plot was discover’d.” The etymology of “noodle” in these senses is unknown, but it may be a variant of the obsolete word “noddle” from the verb “nod” + the suffix “-le,” which when combined with a verb can form an “instrumental” noun. In other words, a noodle is an instrument for nodding. Uh-huh.

As for noodle as a food, the first mention the editors of the OED have found is a journal entry by Lady Mary Coke in 1779:  “A noodle soup—this I begged to be explained and was told it was made only of veal with lumps of bread boiled in it.”  They give the origin as German Nudel (16th cent.), probably a variant of knödel dumpling (16th cent. in this sense; 14th cent. in late Middle High German in sense ‘small knot’ (a diminutive formation, a variant of knoten, ‘knot.’


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2 Responses to Noodling around

  1. The etymologists of the American Heritage Dictionary speculate that Middle English noddel ‘back of the head’ might be from the Latin nodulus ‘lump, knob’ that has given us nodule.

    • lexiekahn says:

      Thanks, Steven. I omitted the comment of the etymologists at the OED who say, “Derivation from classical Latin nōdulus (see nodule n.) has also been suggested, but seems semantically less likely.” They believe the verb “nod” is a more likely source, but they don’t explain why. “Nodule” sounds plausible to me. About “nod” they say: Origin uncertain. Perhaps compare Middle High German “notten” ‘to move to and fro, shake.’

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