When I first came down to London to make my fame and fortune and soon discovered that the streets were not paved with gold, I lived in digs. It was a humble room in a house in Streatham with a fearsome landlady who served up hot meals to her paying guests. I didn’t stay there long but long enough to wonder where this strange description of what was, essentially, a glorified long-term bed, evening meal and breakfast gaff.
The word is an abbreviation of diggings which meant a place of excavation. It is used in this sense as early as 1538 in John Leland’s The Itinerary; “on the south side of Welleden…ys a goodly quarre of Stone, where appere great Diggyns.” The word was transported to countries where there was frantic and feverish excavation of minerals, such as the United States and Australia.
William Gilmore Simms, in his account of the gold rush in Georgia in the 1820s. Guy Rivers, published in 1834. There he uses the term diggings to describe the mine or excavations that the men are working, a fairly literal and prosaic use of the term; “we miners of Tracy’s diggings struck upon a fine heap of the good stuff, and having been gathering gold pretty freely ever since.”
One usage by Simms is particularly interesting, at least from our etymological point of view; “The regular lodgers of the tavern were not numerous therefore, and consisted in the main of those labourers in the diggings who had not yet acquired the means of establishing a household of their own.” The term, diggings, was used exclusively to denote where theses impoverished, itinerant men worked, not lived.
This was the sense that Dickens used the term in Chapter 21 of The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, published in 1844. There we find Martin in conversation with his new (and swindling) business partner in America; “She won’t be taken with a cold chill, when she realises what is being done in these diggings, said the stranger, No, no, said Martin.”
Prior to penning the novel, Dickens had been to America and may have decided to sprinkle some Americanisms into the dialogue to give it some authenticity. The context in which diggings is used is ambiguous but it is more likely to contain a sense of place, as in Simms’ usage, than of a place of abode. The unglossed usage may mean that it was a word that British readers would be familiar with, although, equally, some incomprehensible language would heighten the sense that a foreigner was speaking.
But some six years before Dickens, the term, diggings, began to change its meaning. The New Hampshire born humourist, Joseph Clay Neal, wrote in 1838 in Charcoal Sketches, “Look here, Ned, I reckon it’s about time we should go to our diggings; I am dead beat.” I suppose you could argue that the context is ambiguous and diggings could refer to a mine but the suggestion that it is somewhere in which to sleep encourages me to think that it is used to mean, specifically, lodgings.
Quite why the meaning of diggings morphed thus is the subject of speculation. Perhaps it was because, as Simms pointed out, that the main users of lodging homes, at least in the mineral rich parts of the United States, were miners who had been working in diggings. They were moving from their daytime diggings to their nocturnal ones. Or perhaps there is the sense of nestling down, burrowing in to make oneself comfortable, which could be conveyed by the verb dig and its present participle. Who knows?
What is clear is that the word took off on both sides of the Atlantic to describe temporary accommodation, used principally by itinerant types. In Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, published in 1889, the three comrades arrive in Datchet and set out “to look for diggings.”
This first appeared in the May 11th 1893 edition of The Stage, a British publication; “being in the know regarding the best digs can only be attained by experience.” Perhaps this abbreviation started out in the theatrical world but it soon broke out to be adopted by a wider audience.