noodle (the verb)

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noodle (the verb)

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Jul 21, 2013 6:17 am

The magazine The Week has a humorous section titled ‘Good week for’ and ‘Bad week for’:
<2013 “Bad week for ‘sparing the rod, after an Oklahoma man who was ‘noodling’—catching fish with his bare hands—grabbed hold of a cottonmouth snake. After a week in the hospital and 14 doses of antivenom, Destry Mitchell advised fellow noodlers: ‘Be careful.’”—The Week, 19 July, page 4>
But don’t laugh. For some noodling is no laughing matter:
NOODLING is fishing for catfish using only bare hands [[and no bait]], practiced primarily in the southern United States. . . . 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. . . . Due to concerns over either the safety of noodlers or sustainability of fish populations, or both, the technique is illegal in some states where it was once traditionally practiced. (see Wikipedia)

But why should noodling be illegal in some states? I can understand the concern over the “safety of noodlers” – a fifty pound catfish might take off your arm – but the “sustainability of fish populations” doesn’t seem to make sense. After all, allowing no bait and only the use of your bare hands would seem to make it less likely that a fish would be caught. In fact, I can’t even visualize catching a fish with my bare hands unless it was dead. But as it turns out catfish aren’t all that swift. For details see the above link. And for etymology see ‘unknown.’ (>:)

The following quotes are from the The Dictionary of Regional English and archived sources:
<1923 “Noodle. . . To catch fish with the bare hand or with a long-handled barbed hook [[a gaff]].”—Dialect Notes, 5.215> [[The gaff is for wusses.]]

<1959 “Noodling is a favorite way of fishing with many hillmen. . . It is a test of skill for the noodler must know how to approach the monster in order to avoid its sharp fins. It is not an easy matter to handle a fifty-pound cat. It is necessary to get a good hold on the fish before the wrestling match begins. Sometimes a daring noodler will straddle a giant catfish and ride him to a gravel bar. Reaching into a hole under water is a venturesome thing to do for the noodler may bring out a water moccasin instead of a fish. This is to be expected now and then in noodling.”— The Arkansas Historical Quarterly. Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, page 77>

<1978 “The state Senate has decided unanimously that ‘noodling’ and ‘tickling’ really are part of ‘grabbing.’ . . . A bill setting the new definitions dealing with fishing by hand streamlined language in the old hand-fishing law and was approved 30-0.”—Yuma Daily Sun (Arizona), 16 February, page 41> [[Well that's certainly a relief.]]

<1995 “Noodling is not without risks, and Pidcock understands them well:beaver bites, poisonous snakes, jagged rocks and catfish so large some can hold a man down. ‘There was an old man who noodles over in Chicken Creek near Ten Killer Lake,’ Pidcock said, ‘who caught several fish 9 pounds and bigger back in the 1920s. One of those big flatheads bit him up past his elbow and raked all the meat off of his forearm. They had to amputate his arm.’”—Daily News (Los Angeles, California), 2 November>

<2004 “Noodling is not for the faint of heart. No, it doesn't involve pasta. It's a midwestern tradition wherein someone sticks his hand in a hole in the muddy bottom of a lake or river in the hope that a big catfish will latch on and can be pulled out. No hooks, lines or other equipment are involved. ESPN Outdoors called it an ‘extreme sport’ right up there with bullfighting and skiing Mount Everest. Noodlers from around Oklahoma and Kansas converged on lakes and rivers in Tishomingo, Okla., last week for the second annual National Noodling Tournament and Festival.”—Washington Post (D.C.), 27 June>

<2012 “Is noodling popular? ‘It’s a small segment of the population that does it. Many folks go, What are you crazy? Why would I stick my hand down in muddy water in a hole? What if there’s a snapping turtle?’”—National Geographic, 17 August>
Note: At a later date I will discuss the less obscure meanings of the verb noodle.

Ken – July 20, 2013
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Re: noodle (the verb)

Post by Bobinwales » Sun Jul 21, 2013 6:34 pm

We tickle trout in the UK. I say "we"...
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Re: noodle (the verb)

Post by Wizard of Oz » Mon Jul 22, 2013 9:19 am

.. gee Ken just shows how the cultural horizons of us deprived Aussies is being raised to astronomical heights by the advent of Fox pay TV .. I have watched on several occasions the battle between good ol' boys and the wily catfish .. they even have noodling competitions .. and just for some modern "reality" TV they take city boys down to the river to have a go .. and naturally there has to be cousin Daisy-Mae in a bikini just for visuals ..

WoZ who prefers canoodling
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Re: noodle (the verb)

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sat Oct 05, 2013 2:44 am

In my above posting I promised to provide some of the less obscure meanings of the verb ‘noodle.’ I’ve been thinking long and hard on this matter (translation: I forgot). And I was just waiting for the opportune moment to continue the discussion:
<1965 “All the questions were about as welcome as a diagnosis of Hansen’s Disease [[leprosy]]. He was noodling. Good cops [[detectives]] have that trait and talent.”—A Deadly Shade of Gold (2013) by John D. Macdonald, page 109>
It is interesting how various dictionaries treat this word:


[[Woefully incomplete]]

NOODLE intransitive verb (Slang): To improvise music on an instrument in an idle, haphazard fashion. imitative [[Of noodles?]]


[[Minimally better]]

NOODLE intransitive verb [circa 1937] [imitative]

To play a musical instrument in an informal way without playing a particular piece of music.

To think about something in a way that is not very serious.

Full Definiton of Noodle: To improvise on an instrument in an informal or desultory manner. [[Hmm! I wonder why they call this the ‘full’ definition.]]

He was just noodling around on the guitar.

It's a thought I've been noodling around with for some time.


[[Significantly better]]


verb intransitive

1) To improvise a musical passage in a casual manner, especially as a warm-up exercise.

2) Informal

a) To play; toy: To noodle with numbers as a hobby

b) To improvise, experiment, or think creatively: The writers noodled for a week and came up with a better idea for the ad campaign.

verb transitive

3) Informal

a) To manipulate or tamper with: She denied that she had noodled the statistics to get a favorable result.

b) To make or devise freely as an exercise or experiment (sometimes followed by up): The architects noodled up a model of a solar house.

4) noodle around, Informal. To play, experiment, or improvise.

[1935-40, American; origin uncertain [[Damn! But I would have guessed it derived from ‘noodle = head’ (1762)]]


[[As usual]]


NOODLE (verb)

1) transitive and intransitive [1937] 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 figurative.

2) U.S. colloquial

a) intransitive [1942]: To think, especially to reflect or muse in an unproductive or undirected way; to act light-heartedly (also with about, around); (also) to experiment in an informal, tentative manner.

b) transitive [1950] to noodle out: to figure out, work out; to devise. to noodle up: to think up (rare).

c) transitive [1952] To mull over; to think about, ponder. Also with around.

The best fits for my original quote seems to be Random House 2b) and the OED 2a) To think, especially to reflect or muse in an unproductive or undirected way.

Here’s my take on that quote: A mental fiddling/playing around in which ideas are mulled over and possible discoveries/connections made.

The following are quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary and archived sources:
<1945 “I finally got down to work and really noodled for about an hour.”—American Speech, Vol. 20, page 233/2>

<1969 “Some of his staff . . . are back in the chrome-plated Fifth Avenue offices . . . ‘noodling’ with numbers.”—Business Week, 1 February, page 72>

<1977 “The Tax Foundation, a conservative watchdog of tax changes, is noodling a revision of Ben Franklin's heretofore immutable law that ‘nothing is certain but death and taxes.’”—Time Magazine, 28 November, page 37/1>

<1988 “While a jazz pianist noodled away in the background, we tasted a fabulous salad of squid, roasted pepper and fennel. . . .”—Boston Globe (Massachusetts), 17 May>

<1993 “‘The attorneys general have noodled this problem for four or five years,’ he said.”—Washington Post (D.C.), 9 June>

<1997 “There was even the cheesy dedication ‘to all of you,’ as she noodled on the piano and twisted the familiar lyrics in spots, to humorous effect.”—Chicago Sun-Times (Illinois), 4 December>

<2001 “Relying on the wide range of opinion available from such sources at the Heritage Foundation and Citizens Against Government Waste, a span that covers the gamut from A to B, Cogan and his team noodled the numbers.”—The Charleston Gazette (West Virginia), 3 March>

<2005 “Ray noodled around with ideas that would make things better.”—Boston Globe, 21 June>

<2009 “‘I admit I've noodled all summer over whether I made the right decision in 2004 when I turned down Jon Huntsman's offer to be his lieutenant governor. Yes, I'm sure I made the right decision.’”—Desert News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 6 September>

<2013 “That sort of leverage must have been on the mind of Bernard Smith when he began noodling with experimental sailboat designs in the late 1950s.”—Mechanical Engineering-CIME, 1 August>

Ken – October 4, 2013
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Re: noodle (the verb)

Post by Bobinwales » Sat Oct 05, 2013 12:50 pm

Apart from the fishing usage, do you think that the verb derives from the noun? Jonathon Green describes "noodle" as the human head. Nut, bonce, brainbox etc.
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Re: noodle (the verb)

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Oct 06, 2013 4:10 am

Bob, In my above Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary listing # 4, I said that “I would have guessed it derived from ‘noodle = head’ (1762)” – it seems like the obvious choice. But Random House says ‘origin uncertain.’

However, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang does appear to trace it back to head:

NOODLE verb: #3 [1940s and still in use] (U.S.): 1) To think, to brainstorm. 2) Usually constructed as noodle out/up, to mull something over, to work something out. [from ‘noodle’ noun: #1(2)]

NOODLE noun #1: 1) [19th century and still in use]: The human head. 2) [20th century and still in use]: Intelligence, the mind. [etymology unknown [[for (1)]]; . . . ; (2) is figurative use of (1)]

So, Cassell’s is saying that verb #3 – the origin of which we are interested in – derives from the noun, ‘intelligence, the mind,’ which is the figurative use of the noun ‘human head.’

Another source, Chapman’s Dictionary of American Slang, says for ‘noodle’ (the verb) [origin unknown: the ‘play around senses’ [[are]] perhaps influenced by ‘doodle.’]

Note: In my above posting the American Heritage Dictionary had only one definition for the verb noodle: “To improvise music on an instrument in an idle, haphazard fashion. [imitative].” I had put a question mark after ‘imitative’ because in my experience dictionaries have only used the word ‘imitative’ in their etymologies to mean imitative of a sound – onomatopoeic (e.g. buzz, plop, whoosh, . . .). But here it appears that they have used it instead to be imitative of an object, a noodle (see below):


NOODLE verb 1937 (implied in noodling), from noun meaning “improvised music,” 1926, probably from noodle (noun), on analogy of the suppleness of the food and that of the trills and improvised phrases in jazz improvisations. Related: Noodled.

Also, one might speculate that musical improvisation was the origin of ‘noodle’ the verb – to improvise, experiment, or think creatively, etc. But no dictionary I’ve checked has said that, so probably not. (>;)

Ken – October 5, 2013 (Noodling on noodling)
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Re: noodle (the verb)

Post by Erik_Kowal » Sun Oct 06, 2013 5:49 am

To my mind, the following development is quite plausible:

Physical head > The human mind > Creative, undirected or experimental thinking ('using one's noodle') > Musical, literary or artistic experimentation or improvisation.

No imitation of a physical noodle involved. But I grant the possibility of an influence from 'doodle'.

All we need now is a solid line of evidence. :-)
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Re: noodle (the verb)

Post by Ken Greenwald » Sun Oct 06, 2013 7:52 pm

Erik, That seems like a logical sequence, but I would add as the second element Cassell’s ‘intelligence, the mind.’ However, the OED doesn’t even list this definition and, in fact, Cassell’s doesn’t list the musical one. Also, the OED has the musical verb appearing 5 years before the ‘thinking’ verb. And to top things off, I just discovered that the OED has the musical noun dating back to 1926 (as does the Online Etymology Dictionary) and provides as its ‘probable’ origin, and I kid you not, the 1937 musical verb – hey, a time machine did it. (>:) What a mess! Maybe that’s why Random House threw up their hands and said ‘origin uncertain.’

Ken – October 6, 2013
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Re: noodle (the verb)

Post by Bobinwales » Sun Oct 06, 2013 9:27 pm

Interestingly, I have been noodling in the musical sense for 50 years , it has, and does give me considerable pleasure. I was completely oblivious of the fact that I was noodling however.

I asked a gang of musicians on a site, Facebook I am ashamed to say, and it turns out that the word is known. Ralph McTell even released an album last year called "Sofa Noodling".

Suffice to say, Bob has learned a new word that he should have known about for a great many years!
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End of topic.
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