Play Second Fiddle: Definition, Meaning, and Origin

Last Updated on
May 27, 2024

"Play second fiddle" is an idiomatic expression used to describe a situation where someone or something is seen as less important or in a subordinate position compared to someone else or something else. It originates from the way in which orchestras are arranged, where the 'first fiddle' or lead violinist is considered the most prominent and important, while the 'second fiddle' has a supporting role. This phrase often indicates a feeling of being undervalued or not given due recognition.

In short:

  • Describes a role or position that is secondary or less important than another.
  • Often used to express feeling undervalued or overshadowed.

What Does "Play Second Fiddle" Mean?

"Play second fiddle" metaphorically refers to taking a subordinate or lesser role than someone else. In the context of an orchestra, the first violinist holds the lead or most prestigious position, while the second violinist supports and follows the lead. Similarly, when someone says they are 'playing second fiddle,' they feel that their role or contribution is not as valued or recognized as that of another person. This phrase can be used in various contexts, including work, relationships, and other social situations.

More about the phrase's meaning:

  • It can imply a sense of frustration or discontentment with not being in the forefront or receiving adequate recognition.
  • It often describes situations where another person or thing dominates the focus or attention.
  • It can also be used in a neutral sense, simply to describe a supporting role without any negative connotation.
  • Similar phrases include "in the shadow of," "take a back seat," and "under someone's thumb."

Where Does "Play Second Fiddle" Come From?

The phrase "play second fiddle" originates in orchestral music. In an orchestra, the 'first violin' or 'first fiddle' is the leader of the string section and plays the melody or most prominent part. The 'second fiddle' plays a supporting role, harmonizing with and enhancing the first violin's part. This orchestral arrangement has been metaphorically extended to describe roles and relationships in other areas of life where one person or thing is seen as less important than another.

10 Examples of "Play Second Fiddle" in Sentences

Here are some examples illustrating how "play second fiddle" is used in different contexts:

  • She didn't want to play second fiddle to her colleague anymore and decided to look for a new job.
  • As a vice president, he often felt like he was playing second fiddle to the CEO.
  • He didn’t fit in with the rest of the team. He always felt like he had to play second fiddle to the star player.
  • He was tired of playing second fiddle in the relationship and wanted his opinions to be taken more seriously.
  • He killed it on stage. He made everyone else look like they were playing second fiddle to him.
  • The new policy initiative seems to be playing second fiddle to more immediate political concerns.
  • In many historical accounts, the contributions of women have played second fiddle to those of men.
  • Their relationship took a turn for the worse when she realized she was always playing second fiddle to his career.
  • In the novel, the protagonist's personal life plays second fiddle to her career ambitions.
  • She rose to the occasion and proved herself. She refused to play second fiddle to anyone.

Examples of "Play Second Fiddle" in Pop Culture

This phrase is used in pop culture, typically in movies, TV shows, and books, to describe characters in subordinate roles or feeling overshadowed by others.

Let's look at some examples:

  • Book: "Playing Second Fiddle, Second Edition: God's Heart for Harmony Regarding Women and the Church" delves into the role of women in church leadership, discussing the metaphor of 'playing second fiddle' in the context of spiritual leadership and harmony.
  • Movie: "Second Fiddle" is a 1957 British comedy that draws its title from the phrase "to play second fiddle." The film highlights themes of underappreciation and secondary roles within an orchestral setting, mirroring personal dynamics.
  • Commentary: "Those who play second fiddle find they have a special place in relationships," published in the Williamson Herald, discusses the significant impact and unique position of those not in the limelight but supporting the lead. It focuses on personal relationships and professional environments.
  • Article: In "Playing Second Fiddle" on, the author discusses the challenges and personal growth of being in a subordinate role. The article emphasizes the spiritual development that can arise from such positions, especially in a religious context..

Synonyms: Other/Different Ways to Say "Play Second Fiddle"

Here are some synonyms or similar expressions for "play second fiddle":

  • Take a back seat
  • In the shadow of
  • Under someone's thumb
  • Be overshadowed by
  • Be subordinate to
  • Be secondary to
  • Play a supporting role
  • Be outshone by
  • Be eclipsed by
  • Play a minor role

10 Frequently Asked Questions About "Play Second Fiddle":

  • What does it mean to "play second fiddle" in a relationship?

It means feeling less important or valued compared to another person in the relationship.

  • Is "play second fiddle" a negative expression?

It often carries a negative connotation of feeling undervalued or overshadowed, but it can also be used neutrally to describe a supporting role.

  • Can "play second fiddle" be used in a professional context?

Yes, it's often used to describe situations where someone feels their role or contribution in a work setting is not as recognized as that of their colleagues.

  • How can I use "play second fiddle" in a sentence?

"Despite her extensive experience, she felt like she was playing second fiddle to her less experienced colleague."

  • Can a company play second fiddle to another company?

Yes, in a business context, one company may play second fiddle to a more dominant competitor in the market.

  • Does "play second fiddle" always imply resentment?

Not always. While it can imply discontent, it can also simply describe a subordinate position without any negative feelings attached.

  • Can this phrase be used in positive situations?

Rarely, as it typically implies a lesser role. However, some may view playing a supporting role positively.

  • Is "play second fiddle" an outdated expression?

Not necessarily. It's still used to express the idea of being in a subordinate role, although the context might vary.

  • Are there modern equivalents to "play second fiddle"?

Phrases like "take a back seat" or "be overshadowed by" are modern equivalents with similar meanings.

  • Can this phrase be used in formal writing?

While it's more common in informal speech, it can be used appropriately in formal writing, depending on the context and tone.

Final Thoughts About "Play Second Fiddle"

The idiom "play second fiddle" effectively conveys the concept of being in a less prominent or valued position than someone else. It's a useful expression for discussing dynamics in relationships, workplaces, and various social contexts, highlighting issues of recognition and hierarchy.

To recap:

  • Typically used to describe feeling undervalued or overshadowed in a subordinate role.
  • Can carry a negative connotation but may also be used neutrally to describe a supporting role.
  • Useful in various contexts to express the dynamics of hierarchy and recognition.
  • While the phrase has historical roots, it remains relevant in modern language to describe relational and professional dynamics.

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