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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.

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Perhaps the date 1837 provides some kind of clue. That was not long after the spelling reform movement took hold in the U.S., and maybe the back-formation was accepted for whatever reason. –  Robusto Nov 19 '12 at 16:49
    
In light of @StoneyB's answer, I'm interested to hear what the OED has to say about this. –  coleopterist Nov 20 '12 at 4:27
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2 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

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.

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Excellent, +1; but could we use "peddler" in figurative sense, e.g., peddler in pipe dreams? Or, strictly speaking, is "peddler" reserved only for those who deal in illegal drugs? –  user19148 Nov 19 '12 at 19:42
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@Carlo_R Google claims 48,000 hits on "peddler of dreams". Of course Google lies a lot. –  StoneyB Nov 19 '12 at 20:05
    
How does pedlar figure in all this? Did pedlar and peddler coexist in the UK for at least a couple of centuries? BTW, Etymonline states that peddle is a back-formation of peddler rather than pedlar. –  coleopterist Nov 20 '12 at 3:27
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@coleopterist As you see, The Royal Dictionary in 1728 gives them as variant spellings. Peddler is shown here 1571 and is still the preferred spelling in John Walker's "Critical Pronouncing Dictionary", first published in 1791 and still being printed 40 years later, not only in England but also in Germany and the US. Walker gives it as "Pedler [yes, with 'er']... properly Peddler" So basically a back-formation from one is a back-formation from the other. –  StoneyB Nov 20 '12 at 4:20
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Chambers Dictionary, (reliable where Scottish usage is concerned, and fairly good regarding usage in England) says that pedder was the original form (or pether in Walter Scott), and a pedder was distinguished from a hawker by travelling on foot rather than with a cart. This became pedlar in the same way as tinkler sprang from tinker (??); peddle was a later coinage/verbification influenced by piddle; and peddler is 'largely U.S', presumably used by people who don't know the etymology.

It sounds plausible: but has anybody else found any link between pedlar and foot travel?

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MED certainly gives pedder(e) at the same time as pedelare and pedelere, with a single instance a couple hundred years earlier, and suggests an origin in "ML pedārius, one who goes on foot & pedāre, to walk." Tinkler is, I believe, Scottish dialect for tinker; I remember encountering it in John Buchan's work. –  StoneyB Nov 19 '12 at 20:15
    
OED 1 speculates that intransitive and transitive senses of the verb are distinct words, but the argument does not convince me. Towards the end of the 18th century the spelling peddler seems to be particularly popular in Scottish dialect writing. The versions with l go at least as far back as the early 14th century, and the verb to the 16th century. –  StoneyB Nov 20 '12 at 4:24
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