Q From Glenna Calton: I was raised in Eastern Kentucky. I always heard the older folks that have long since passed away call baby chicks diddlers. As the chicks grew they became fryers and then layers and then setters. When they became too old for frying, they became boilers. Have you any information where the word diddlers could have originated? Could it be an Indian word or foreign word that migrated into America by ship?
A It certainly did come into the United States by ship, quite a long time ago, I would guess.
According to the Dictionary of American Regional English, the word diddle is indeed a well-known term for a baby chick or a duckling, chiefly known from the south Appalachians. It’s also a call to such animals. However, DARE doesn’t know diddler — this may be a local variation it hasn’t recorded. It could easily have evolved from diddle, however, so there’s nothing mysterious about it.
The English Dialect Dictionary gives the clue to where it comes from. It, too, has diddle, which it found recorded in various counties, including Somerset. It says it’s a dialect word for a duckling, though it could also refer to a sucking-pig. So it looks very much as though emigrants took the word to America.
The origin is a bit murky, but an earlier sense was to walk unsteadily like a child, which might easily have been transferred to the young of various farmyard animals. It seems to be connected with several other words, including dither, dawdle and possibly toddle, and to a set of lesser known terms that include daddle and dadder. There are several other senses of diddle known, the best-known being “to cheat or swindle”, but these aren’t connected.