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Screaming ab-dabs

Q From Rob Ewen, UK: A friend said during a recent discussion on cinema that horror films gave her the screaming ab-dabs. What are ab-dabs and where do I find them?

A To give someone the screaming abdabs (or habdabs) is a British expression for inducing an attack of extreme anxiety or irritation in someone. It’s recorded in print from the middle 1940s.

There are few certainties about its origin. Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, says that the screaming abdabs was a late 1930s expression for an attack of delirium tremens, but he doesn’t provide any evidence and that sense is otherwise unrecorded. He also claims that two phrases existed: don’t give me the old abdabs and don’t come the old abdabs with me. Both were warnings not to try to fool somebody or tell some fictitious story to excuse an action, which he records as services’ slang from World War Two. The modern British meaning is presumably a softening of the idea of delirium tremens. The version with the added h on the front looks like a hypercorrection, in which users assume an uncultivated speaker must be dropping his hs.

Jonathon Green, in the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, suggests the word could imitate the stuttering noise that somebody might produce when in a state of funk or incoherent frustration.

Until Gordon Paterson e-mailed me from Richmond, Virginia following the first appearance of this piece, I hadn’t considered that it might also be an American usage. However, he remarked that “In my homeland of Dixie (aka the southern USA), the term abba-dabba is a common one with strong negative overtones denoting persons of such limited capacities that they are unable to properly form words”. That sent me to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang; it’s compiler Jonathon Lighter doesn’t mention that sense, but says it’s an American slang term for dessert (Eric Partridge also mentions this as a subsidiary meaning) with just one example, from 1961.

Jonathon Lighter suggests an origin in an old ragtime song called Abba Dabba Honeymoon (from my extreme youth I vaguely remember Debbie Reynolds singing it in the film Two Weeks With Love, which appeared in 1950 and became a hit song in its own right later). Its refrain went:

"Aba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab,"
Said the Chimpie to the Monk,
"Baba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab,"
Said the Monkey to the Chimp.

Though it might be a complete coincidence, the similarity between the abba dabba of the title and abdab is too striking to be ruled out as a possible source. This song was actually written by Arthur Fields and Walter Donovan way back in 1914, and was very popular in the 1920s, so the dates fit.

The link between meaningless monkey chatter and the sense Mr Paterson gives is obvious enough. It’s possible to imagine it giving rise to a meaning of delirium tremens through a mechanism such as Jonathon Green proposes. But how it came to mean dessert defeats me completely.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Sep. 2001

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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: 8 September 2001.