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Dibs

Q From Scott: I am interested in learning the origin of the word dibs, as used in the expression: I have dibs on that, meaning ‘to claim a share of something’.

A I’ve read half a dozen explanations of where this one came from, and in every one there’s a howling great gap where we might expect historical continuity. What we do know is that this expression is first recorded in print, in American Speech, as late as 1932. It comes into existence seemingly fully formed, with no obvious links to any previous meaning of the word. That’s hardly likely, of course.

Most writers seize on what seems to be the most relevant older use of dib as a word connected with childhood. This refers to an ancient and very common game known by dozens of other names (jacks, fivestones, knucklebones, hucklebones; pentalithia in classical Rome), though the name dibs is recorded only from the early part of the eighteenth century. Here’s a late reference from Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure of 1895: “Why when I and my poor man were married we thought no more o’t than of a game o’ dibs!”. It seems to be an abbreviation of an even older term, dibstones, a name whose origin is obscure to the point of terminal murkiness. The problem is that we have no idea how a word for a game in Britain turned into an American expression claiming priority (British children would often use bags in this situation, a term derived from public school slang).

Another sense of the word which is sometimes put in evidence is the slang one meaning money. Here’s H G Wells, in The War in the Air: “He thought the whole duty of man was to be smarter than his fellows, get his hands, as he put it, ‘on the dibs,’ and have a good time”.

There are various other meanings of dib, as both noun and verb, which has had a muddled history in which dab and dap feature strongly as variant forms. But none of these have any obvious link to the word in the sense you’re asking about. As an example, in older northern English dialects it meant a depression in the ground, possibly a variant of dip, as here in John Galt’s The Annals of the Parish of 1821: “The spring was slow of coming, and cold and wet when it did come; the dibs were full, the roads foul, and the ground that should have been dry at the seed-time, was as claggy as clay, and clung to the harrow”.

Yet another suggestion is that the word is a modified abbreviation of division or divide. This neatly circumvents the problems with provenance, and fits the model of many children’s slang terms of this and earlier periods. But I’ve not come across any evidence for it.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 24 Apr. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 24 April 1999.