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January 18, 2019  |  Friday words #156  |  520 hit(s)

Probably you've walked around in a city and wanted to cross a busy street. So probably you've seen one of these things on a pole near the intersection:

Do you have a name for this? I just recently learned that in some circles, at least, these are called beg buttons. As in, pedestrians have to push a button to beg to be allowed to cross the street.

This is presumably not what traffic engineers call these, at least, not when they're writing up planning documents. For those purposes, these devices are referred to as pedestrian call buttons or pedestrian crossing buttons. (Descriptive, but dull.) You tend to see beg buttons in contexts where people are not happy with the way traffic is managed; more specifically, when they think traffic is managed in a way to disfavor pedestrians. (For example, beg button is the term used in the article How traffic signals favour cars and discourage walking.)

Fun fact: at some intersections (not all), the beg button is a placebo. In these cases, the lights at an intersection are on a timed cycle. Pedestrians can push the button, but it doesn't change the timing of the lights. (It might be that the beg button does work for off-hours cycles, like at night.) At the intersection close to my office, when you push the beg button, a stern voice commands "Wait!" I don't know whether that indicates that the signal is or isn't a placebo, but I dare not contradict the Wait Voice.[1]

So that's the new-to-me word this week. For origins, I was wondering about where the word fiddle came from. Some poking reminded me that German has the word Fiedel, which is obviously a cognate, and the dictionary notes several variations like that in other Germanic languages. And fiddle goes back to Old English, which bolsters its Germanic creds.

But this turns out to be another "origin uncertain" word. The most common explanation is that fiddle goes back to a word vitula in late Latin, which also described an instrument. And that term might in turn go back to a word for "joyful celebration." Although Douglas Harper makes a reasonable countersuggestion: "Unless the Medieval Latin word [for the instrument] is from the Germanic ones."

Anyway, the Latin word vitula evolved into viol, which turned in Italian into viola and violin, which we borrowed into English. So we have two words for a stringed instrument, fiddle and violin, and they probably came from the same root. The only question is which term came first.

If you're me, you might also be wondering what the heck the difference is between a fiddle and a violin, anyway. The answer is simple, but contextual: it's the same instrument, you just call it one name or the other depending on what type of music you play on it .

[1] If you like this sort of thing, read To press or not to press: a guide to pedestrian buttons, where Toronto writer Dylan Reid goes into some detail about how signal activation works.

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Jonathon Owen   18 Jan 19 - 8:31 AM

I think I'd just call that a crosswalk button. And there's a new one by my office that also yells "Wait!" when you push it. Like, chill out, button. It's not like I was going to go darting into traffic.

Kent Sharkey   19 Jan 19 - 9:46 PM

The other difference between a fiddle and a violin (via a few sellers that I know): it’s a fiddle when you’re buying, and a violin when you’re selling.

mike   19 Jan 19 - 11:16 PM