Pedaling vs. Peddling

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has asked for a post about the confusion between pedaling and peddling.

The only errors I found related to the use of two idioms: “influence peddling” and “go pedal your papers”:

Incorrect: All I had to do was get close to the power brokers in these foreign countries and report on any influence pedalling without compromising my client’s confidentiality.
Correct : All I had to do was get close to the power brokers in these foreign countries and report on any influence peddling without compromising my client’s confidentiality.

Incorrect: She should be in jail for corruption and influence pedalling
Correct : She should be in jail for corruption and influence peddling

Incorrect: After we told him to go pedal his papers elsewhere, he got on his cell phone. 
Correct : After we told him to go peddle his papers elsewhere, he got on his cell phone.

“To peddle” is “to sell.” “To pedal” is “to push with the foot against a pedal.”

influence peddling: the practice of using the influence of wealth or authority to bestow favors or obtain preferential treatment.

go peddle your papers: go somewhere else with whatever you are trying to sell.

The verb peddle is a backformation from pedlar: “An itinerant trader or dealer in small goods.” Because a pedlar sells items of insignificant value, the verb peddle connotes disparagement and contempt.

Note: The US spelling of pedlar is peddler.

The noun pedal, referring to a foot-operated lever on an organ, entered English in the 17th century. The verb pedal, with the meaning “to push a pedal,” came into use in the late 19th century. When bicycles were invented, the foot levers were named pedals.

Two figurative expressions based on the word pedalsoft-pedal and backpedal— derive from two different activities.

“To soft-pedal” comes from music. A piano’s pedals enable the player to soften or muffle the sound produced by the keys. Figuratively, “to soft-pedal” means “to reduce in force or effect; to tone down, play down, go easy on.” Here are some examples from the Web:

After getting retailers and consumers excited by its commitment to closing the online GST loophole, the Government is again soft pedalling on the issue. 

A 1960s movie starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty will resurrect the groundless legend of Bonnie & Clyde, part “Romeo & Juliet” and part “Robin Hood”, soft-pedalling the fact that they killed at least 13 police officers and citizens. 

The mob-fueled extremism of the Cultural Revolution has been thoroughly rejected by peasant and plutocrat, alike despite propagandistic soft-pedaling in official media.

“To backpedal” comes from cycling. Back-pedaling is the action of pressing down and back on the pedal as it rises, in order to check the movement of the wheel. Figuratively, “to back-pedal” is to back down from a previous position. Here are some examples:

After likening welfare recipients to stray animals, Andre Bauer, the embattled lieutenant governor, is hastily back-pedalling from remarks his rivals have called “immoral.”

In a Rolling Stone interview, Sienna Miller made disparaging remarks about Pittsburg. She has been back-pedalling ever since.

Spelling notes:
1. Although pedaling is US spelling and pedalling is British spelling, I noticed the double-l spelling frequently in US publications.

2. The OED shows the verbs as soft-pedal and back-pedal.
M-W shows backpedal and soft-pedal.

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