A doodle is a drawing made while a person’s attention is otherwise occupied. Doodles are simple drawings that can have concrete representational meaning or may just be composed of random and abstract lines, generally without ever lifting the drawing device from the paper, in which case it is usually called a “scribble”.
Popular Doodle types include cartoonists or schoolmates, famous movie or TV stars, comic book characters, invented fictional beings, imaginary beings, landscapes, geometric shapes, and patterns, textures, phallic scenes, or animations by drawing a sequence of scenes in different pages of a book or a notebook.
Doodling and scribbling are most often associated with young children and toddlers, because their lack of hand–eye coordination and lower mental development often make it very difficult for any young child to keep their coloring attempts within the line art of the subject. Despite this, it is not uncommon to see such behaviour with adults, in which case it is generally done jovially, out of boredom.
Typical examples of doodling are found in school notebooks, often in the margins, drawn by students daydreaming or losing interest during class. Other common examples of doodling are produced during long telephone conversations if a pen and paper are available.
The word doodle first appeared in the early 17th century to mean a fool or simpleton. It may derive from the German Dudeltopf or Dudeldop, meaning simpleton or noodle (literally “nightcap”). It is the origin of the early eighteenth century verb to doodle, meaning “to swindle or to make a fool of”. The modern meaning emerged in the 1930s either from this meaning or from the verb “to dawdle”, which since the seventeenth century has had the meaning of wasting time or being lazy.
In the 1936 film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, in the final courtroom scene, the main character, addressing the judge, introduces the word ‘doodler’ – which the judge has not heard before – as “a name we made up back home to describe a person who makes foolish designs on paper when they’re thinking.” This is clearly not a word in common usage at that time, and the inference is that it is an invented word that no one outside the character’s fictional home town of Mandrake Falls would be expected to know. Perhaps the word ‘doodle’, used here in its modern sense of ‘an absent-minded design on paper’, was not entirely new and was not actually invented by the scriptwriter, Robert Riskin, but it seems likely that at the very least this film greatly assisted the word into common usage.
The meaning “fool, simpleton” is intended in the song title “Yankee Doodle”, originally sung by British colonial troops prior to the American Revolutionary War.
According to a study published in the scientific journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, doodling can aid a person’s memory by expending just enough energy to keep one from daydreaming, which demands a lot of the brain’s processing power, as well as from not paying attention. Thus, it acts as a mediator between the spectrum of thinking too much or thinking too little and helps focus on the current situation. The study was done by Professor Jackie Andrade, of the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth, who reported that doodlers in her experiment recalled 7.5 pieces of information (out of 16 total) on average, 29% more than the average of 5.8 recalled by the control group made of non-doodlers.
Alexander Pushkin’s notebooks are celebrated for their superabundance of marginal doodles, which include sketches of friends’ profiles, hands, and feet. These notebooks are regarded as a work of art in their own right. Full editions of Pushkin’s doodles have been undertaken on several occasions. Some of Pushkin’s doodles were animated by Andrei Khrzhanovsky and Yuriy Norshteyn in the 1987 film My Favorite Time.
Nobel laureate (in literature, 1913) poet Rabindranath Tagore made huge number of doodles in his manuscript. Poet and physician John Keats doodled in the margins of his medical notes; other literary doodlers have included Samuel Beckett and Sylvia Plath. Mathematician Stanislaw Ulam developed the Ulam spiral for visualization of prime numbers while doodling during a boring presentation at a mathematics conference. Many American Presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, have been known to doodle during meetings.
Some doodles and drawings can be found in notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci.