Q From David Seaton, UK: Any ideas of the origin of digs as in accommodation, rooms etc?
A In British usage, to be in digs is to live in a room in a house with shared facilities, frequently with meals supplied by the landlady. It’s typically a lodging for students or young unmarried men and women.
It’s short for diggings, which is the older word for the same idea. That derives — as you might guess — from a place where one digs, a word that goes back to the sixteenth century. Many books argue that the original diggings linked to the accommodation sense were the gold fields of California and Australia. We do know that the Australian nickname digger comes from this area of life and so it’s sometimes assumed that the word is likewise Australian, though all the early evidence is American and the term predates both these gold rushes anyway. But there is a gold fields connection.
It’s often said that the word comes from the idea of a person who “digs in”, who makes a bolthole or burrow in which to live. No doubt there’s something like that involved in creating the sense, because the first prospectors in an unpopulated area had to make shift as best they could and sod huts or the like would have been an obvious way to quickly build a shelter. However, it’s possible to trace a chain of shifts in meaning that links the mine workings sense of diggings with the accommodation one. The first was that diggings transferred to the whole locality, which it did in the 1830s. The first writer to use the word in this sense was William Gilmore Simms, who included it in a book of 1834 called Guy Rivers about the gold rush of the 1820s in the wilds of what was then frontier north Georgia. The word soon moved from the locality to the towns that mushroomed up to service the mines and provide accommodation for the miners, and then to the accommodation itself. The first instance of diggings for lodgings is in a humorous book by Joseph Clay Neal of 1838 with the title Charcoal Sketches: “Look here, Ned, I reckon it’s about time we should go to our diggings; I am dead beat.”
The Oxford English Dictionary quotes an example from Charles Dickens’s book Martin Chuzzlewit of 1844, which might suggest it was widely known in Britain at this time. But it appears during an encounter on a railway journey in the American part of the story, among other vocabulary that Dickens presumably picked up during his US trip of 1842, and to me the speaker means “place”, not “lodgings”. However, by the latter part of the century, diggings is most certainly in wide use in Britain — to take just one example, it’s in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat of 1889: “We were tired and hungry, we same three, and when we got to Datchet we took out the hamper, the two bags, and the rugs and coats, and such like things, and started off to look for diggings.”
The abbreviation digs came along at about that time; most definitely that’s a British invention. Because it turns up first in an issue of The Stage in 1893, it is thought to have been created by actors (who, frequently being itinerant, had more need of them than most people), though later examples suggest that if it was originally theatrical slang it quickly moved out into the population at large.