A wry view of life for the world-weary

What Is The Origin Of (90)?…


A dab hand

We use this phrase to indicate a certain level of expertise but rarely give a thought as to its origin – perhaps fortunately, as it is somewhat uncertain.

The verb, dab, first appeared around the 14th century in England – it may be related to Old Dutch dabben and the German tappen – and was used in the context of giving someone a sharp blow. This rather violent meaning softened over the years and by the 16th century it had settled on its modern meaning of pressing lightly with something soft. The vernacular, dabs, for fingerprints may owe its origins to this verb.

The first recorded usage of dab in adjectival form appeared in the Athenian Mercury of 1691, “[Love is] such a dab at his bows and arrows”.  Here it clearly is used to denote expertise, a usage, perhaps, confirmed by our old friend, the Dictionary of the Canting Crew of 1698, where it is defined as “an exquisite expert”, with the rider that is was used in connection with expertise in some form of roguery. There are some suggestions that dab was school slang but the earliest recorded usages seem, with the exception of Love, to be associated with some form of criminality. The arrival of a hand to keep dab company did not occur until the 19th century and it may owe this association to the good folk of Yorkshire.

It is difficult to see how the adjective form derived its meaning from the verb and it may be that there is a different origin altogether for a phrase which reached its peak in popularity in the 1950s in Britain. An alternative theory is that it is a variant of adept, which means expert or able, and makes for an easier transition.

Often with etymology it is difficult to know your onions, a phrase we associate with a complete understanding or knowledge of the subject. Again, there are various competing theories to explain its origin the most engaging of which involves a Mr S.G Onions. He derived a series of coins which were distributed to English schools from 1843 to be used as a teaching aid to drum home to the little darlings the intricacies of pounds, shillings and pence. Mastery of the 12 times and 20 times tables, not forgetting the four farthings that made up a penny, may have entitled the pupil to think that they knew their onions.

The problem with this theory is that the first recorded usage of the phrase doesn’t appear until the 1920s, long after Mr Onions had departed from centre stage, and in American publications, to boot. Harper’s Magazine of March 1992 reports that, “Mr Roberts knows his onions, all right”, as did Governor Donahey according to the Lima News of May 1923. The American and late usage makes it difficult to accept that Mr Onion’s teaching aids were the true origin.

So we are left with a phrase, probably American, with an uncertain origin. Recognising the different varieties of onions and the ability to propagate them requires a certain degree of knowledge and expertise, for sure, but I can’t help thinking that the onions in our phrase could just as easily be bananas, carrots or any other form of vegetable or fruit. But onions it is.

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