Q From Ken Hart in Dundee, Scotland: I wondered how the phrase dab hand originated, meaning someone particularly skilled at a task. Any ideas?
A This is mainly a British Commonwealth phrase, commonly used in sentences such as “My son has become a dab hand at renovating cast-off computers”. We’re able to trace its origin back to the end of the seventeenth century, but then the trail runs into the sand.
The phrase dab hand turns up first in the early nineteenth century and is widely recorded in English regional and dialect usage through the century. The first recorded use of dab by itself in a related sense is in the Athenian Mercury of 1691. It’s also in the Dictionary of the Canting Crew of 1698-99: a dab there is “an exquisite expert” in some form of roguery. The US word dabster for an expert comes from the same source, and is recorded from about the same time. Dab is often reported as being school slang, but that may be a later development, as the early sightings all seem to have had criminal associations.
Nobody is even sure where the original dab came from: it may be linked to the Old Dutch dabben and German tappen. The verb first appears about 1300, when it meant to give somebody a sharp blow; it weakened in sense over time, until in the sixteenth century it arrived at its modern meaning of pressing lightly and repeatedly with something soft (the criminal slang dabs for fingerprints seems to derive from this sense, perhaps with a nod towards dab hand). It’s difficult to see how the idea of expertise grew out of the various senses of dab and it’s possible that in this sense it is a separate word, perhaps from adept.