Dribs and drabs
This phrase is used to describe small or intermittent sums or amounts or bits and pieces or people which appear irregularly. An example might be that the guests turned up at the party in dribs and drabs.
In trying to determine the etymology of the phrase, it is probably best to start where there is some sense of certainty. The word drib was in use from at least the 18th century in colloquial speech around the United Kingdom. There is an example from Scottish dialect dating from around 1730. It meant a small quantity or a drop and it is thought that it was a variant of drop or drip. That this may be the case is perhaps confirmed by an earlier verb form, to drib, which meant to fall to the ground in drops and looks to be an abbreviated form of to dribble. Driblet, which is the diminutive form of drib, dates from around the 1590s.
The word drab is a much trickier proposition altogether. For the modern English speaker, it is an adjective used to describe something which is dull and dowdy, without much colour. This is not surprising because this form of the word has been in use since the 1530s to describe a piece of cloth which had not been dyed, hence without colour and a bit dull. It owed its origin in this context to the Middle French word, drap, which meant a piece of cloth.
There was another form of drab which was used to describe a dirty and untidy woman and by extension a slattern or a prostitute. This probably came into the English language via the old Low German word drabbe, which meant a mire. Perhaps more germane to our enquiry is the usage of the noun in Yorkshire dialect. A glossary of the dialect of Craven, a town in North Yorkshire, published in 1828, contains the entry. “he’s gain away for good, and he’s left some drabs.” The rascal had run away and left behind some debts. So is a drab a small amount of money or a minor debt? At least it has the merit of balancing the diminutive that is provided by drib.
Our phrase first appeared in print in a letter written by Miss Nelly Weeton, a governess and traveller, on 17th March 1809. There she wrote, “whether it be better to have a little [news] and often, or a great deal and seldom, I leave to your better judgment to determine…You may have it in dribs and drabs if you like it better.” That it predates the reference to drab in the Yorkshire glossary should not cause us too much concern because a word needs to be in currency and intelligible to the reader or listener before it can be used in print without an accompanying gloss.
Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1861, has one of his interviewees saying, “None of us save money; it goes either in a lump, if we get a lump, or in dribs and drabs.” Henry Green’s novel, Concluding, published in 1948, contains the line, “they entered by dribs and drabs, lazily, slack.” Each of these three citations shows the phrase in its current day usage.
So what was a drab? It could be a small amount of money or a debt but I can’t help thinking that this definition hardly fits better with drib than do the other two that we have rejected, a dull cloth or a slatternly woman. It may be that what we have here is just another example of the reduplicated compounds that pepper our language, drab providing a pleasing alliterative and rhyming balance to drib. That there were other meanings associated with drab is just a coincidence, no more than that.