In the course of bearding the beast of biographical blurb yesterday, I found myself using the verb “to noodle”. I used it to describe the way I wrote before I buckled down and got serious. I love this word. To me, noodling is joyous, experimental, and yet also careless. It lacks vigor, but its aimlessness gives it a chance for serendipity, for discovery. The word, with its associations of limp pasta and long strings of wiggly spaghetti, is perfect. But I wondered — was this a word I could expect everyone to know? As I’ve previously mentioned, the family dialect of the Shoulders is not always comprehensible to the bystander, and I could even trace the lineage of my fondness of “to noodle” to my dad, that inveterate word-bender. I consulted the OED.
The verb “noodle”, it transpires, has any number of meanings, including the English regional “To fool around, to waste time” and the Australian “To search (an opal dump or ‘mullock’) for opals”. In the Southern US, it can refer to a low-tech method of catching turtles and fish. Finally, however, the fifth entry yielded what I sought:
noodle, v.5: 1. trans. and intr. 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 fig.
2. U.S. colloq.
a. intr. To think, esp. 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. trans. to noodle out: to figure out, work out; to devise. to noodle up: to think up (rare).
c. trans. To mull over; to think about, ponder. Also with around.
How fabulous that this meaning seems to arise from the musical usage! One of the reasons I love the OED is that it includes such a wealth of etymology and reference. This is the stuff a word carries around with it. It carries its own history and DNA, which may register on a reader’s brain along with the individual connections and memories that that reader carries in his own personal lexicon.
How lovely it is to noodle, to be limp and squiggly as cooked spaghetti, adventurous and light-hearted as a jazz clarinetist, free to wander using only (if you’ll forgive me) the power of your noodle!