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The meaning and origin of the expression: Play second fiddle

Play second fiddle

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Play second fiddle'?

To 'play second fiddle' is to take a subordinate position to another person.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Play second fiddle'?

Play second fiddle'Play second fiddle' derives from the orchestral role of Second Violin. This person leads the group of second violins (fiddles) who play a supportive role musically to the first violins which usually play the melody.

The notion that 'play second fiddle' derives from the roles within an orchestra is what anyone might guess to be the case. In etymological terms it is something of a rarity as such plausible guesses are usually incorrect.

We can say with certainty how the expression 'play second fiddle' derived; what isn't so clear is precisely when and where.

We can make a pretty good stab at those questions, as all the early uses of the expression in print date to early 19th century London.

The first example I can find of the phrase 'play second fiddle' in print is from the English newspaper The Morning Post, September 1801:

Storace and Braham are gone to Bath, dis- gusted, it is said, to find that, after being engaged to oppose Mrs. Billington, they are now to play second fiddle to her and Incledon.

A little research shows that the Storace and Braham listed were Nancy Storace and John Braham, who were leading operatic singers at the turn of the 19th century. It appears that they were upstaged by Elizabeth Billington and Charles Incledon, who were rival operatic performers.

The expression 'play second fiddle' had its heyday in the middle of the 20th century and is now used less and less. Not quite so much less as its companion 'play first fiddle' which was commonplace when the two terms were coined but is now long resident in the linguistic graveyard.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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