Pedlar vs. peddler

The etymonline entry for peddler reads:

late 14c. (c.1300 as a surname, Will. Le Pedelare), from peoddere, peddere (c.1200, mid-12c. as a surname), of unknown origin. It has the appearance of an agent noun, but no corresponding verb is attested in Middle English. Perhaps a dim. of ped “panier, basket,” also of unknown origin, but this is attested only from late 14c. Pedlar, preferred spelling in U.K., is attested from late 14c.

Going by the above, it’s difficult to understand which came first—pedlar or peddler. The former is the recommended BrE spelling and the latter the AmE equivalent. If pedlar was the original spelling, why the switch to peddler (with an extra d as well as a change in suffix) in AmE? The word peddle is itself a back-formation from peddler dated ~1837 which makes it doubtful as the source.

Other similarly suffixed words such as liar, beggar, and bursar appear to have made the transition untarnished.


The verb peddle and the noun peddler are older than your source suggests. Middle English Dictionary gives both pedelare and pedelere in the 14th Century. As spelling began to be regularized we find:

Mr. A. Boyer, The Royal Dictionary, 1728 (a French & English dictionary):

Pedlar or Pedler, S. Un ramonneur ou colporteur, petit mercier ou clincailler, que porte sa boutique sur soi.
To peddle, V. N. Faire le metier de colporteur, de petit mercier, ou de clincaillier

A Dialogue Between Timothy and Philatheus, 1710:

a License to Hawk and Peddle with

Christopher Wase, Dictionarium Minus, 1675 (a Latin & English dictionary):

Agino, are. To peddle; to haggle.

The History of the Life and Acts of … Edmund Grindal, 1710, records the Archbishop’s Injunctions under “Anno 1571”:

No Peddler, or other, to set his Wares to sell in Church Porch or Churchyard

If peddle is indeed a back-formation from pedlar, it fell together with a homonym spelt both peddle and piddle

D. Fenning, The Royal English Dictionary, 1743:

To PE’DDLE, V. N. [commonly written *piddle] to be busy about trifles.
To PI’DDLE, V. N. [derived by Skinner from pecciolo, Ital. or petit, Fr. Little; and Johnson supposes it comes from peddle, which Skinner says, signifies to deal in small things] to pick at table; to eat squeamishly; to trifle, and attend to small parts rather than the main.

This, too, has a fairly long history:

Guy Miege, The Short French Dictionary, 1701:

to Piddle, pinocher, manger en degouté.

Thomas Durfey, The Marriage-Hater Match’d, 1692.

a good fat Haunch of Venison, boyl’d with Colliflowers, would do well to piddle over.

Robert Harris,Works,1654:

A sick man that hath a bad stomach, listens after this thing and that thing (he cannot away with all kind of meats) and when he hath what he wished for, he doth but piddle a little at it

William Hinde, The Office and Vse of the Morall Law of God, 1623:

and yet dare you be so bold, as to piddle and picke out something out of his writings

Small wonder that one who does a business in trifles should be conflated with one who busies himself with trifles.

Source : Link , Question Author : coleopterist , Answer Author : StoneyB on hiatus

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