What Is The Origin Of (228)?…

First dibs

Watching children playing, they seem to be forever squabbling over who should have first go. Perhaps it is a vestige of an innate survival instinct. And there seems to be a special vocabulary that they use; “bags I go first” or “let me have first dibs.” It is the latter which will be the subject of this etymological enquiry.

The starting point is, not unsurprisingly, a game played by children, dibstones, abbreviated to dibs. By the time Thomas Hardy came to pen Jude the Obscure in 1895 it was being used as a reference to something trivial; “why when I and my poor man were married we thought no more o’t than a game of dibs.” Dibstones was probably a variant of the popular playground game, jacks, at least it was when I was a child, or knucklestones, involving a ball and ten metal or plastic jacks. The idea behind its modern incarnation is to pick up as many jacks before the ball bounces.

An early reference to the game is found in John Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education, published in 1693; “I have seen little Girls exercise whole Hours together and take abundance of Pains to be expert at Dibstones as they call it.” But it is much older. There is a fragment from a play by the Athenian tragedian, Sophocles, attributing the origin of the game to Palamedes and the Romans certainly played a variant.

Perhaps having first dibs is getting the first turn at playing the game.

It might be but over time there was a significant change in the use of the word dibs. It became a synonym for money. The Song of George Barnwell, found in the Port Folio of June 6th 1807, contains the lines, “If you mean to come Bring your bellows (snuffome any more/ You must put more cash in your pocket./ Make Nunky surrender his dibbs.

Pierce Egan’s Real Life in London: or The rambles and Adventures of Bob Tallyho Esq, from 1821, is always a good source for examples of the argot of the common folk. In its pages we encounter a Mr Merrywell whose speech was peppered with so many bits of slang as to make it barely comprehensible to the modern reader and, perhaps, many contemporary ones too. “Bring your bellows (snuff), in good order, and don’t be afraid of your bread basket (stomach). The dibs are in tune (there’s money). A ball of fire (brandy), a dose of daffy (a patent medicine) or a blow out of black strap (gin mixed with molasses) will set the blue devils at defiance, give a spur to harmony, and set the spirits a jogging.” Sounds good to me.

In slang prigs were thieves, a bit of knowledge necessary to appreciate the next monetary example of dibs to be found in On the Prigging Lay from 1829 to be found in John Farmer’s Musa Pedestris. “Uncle, open the door of your crib/ If you’d share the swag, or have one dib.” The thieves are exhorting the poor uncle to open up and let them have his money.

The usage had changed again by the middle of the century. George Matsell defined dib as “a portion or share” in his Vocabulum; Or, The Rogue’s Lexicon, published in 1859. This is surely the modern meaning of the playground phrase and we can detect a development from the abbreviation for a game through a slang term for money to a share. It makes sense.

What it doesn’t explain is why the earliest citations of first dibs come from America. An early such usage is found in a pamphlet called Our Boys, published by the Wisconsin Home and Farm School Association in 1907; “each boy cries out/ as quick as he can,/ I got first dibs/ on the baking pan.” It was clearly in use in speech before then and could easily have migrated over with English-speaking migrants.


What Is The Origin Of (213)?…

Three sheets to the wind

Now that the holiday season is well and truly behind us, some of us, no doubt, can recall that we over-indulged a little bit and may even, on occasion, have been three sheets to the wind. By this we mean very drunk but where did this phrase come from?

It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that it is nautical but what is fascinating is that the sheets referred to are not sails, as I had assumed, but ropes or chains, fixed to the lower corners of sails and used to fasten them in place. Technically, there is only one sheet to a sail, any other ropes fastened to it used for adjusting it to take account of wind direction being known as lines. Strictly, therefore, the expression would describe a three-masted ship where all its sails were loosely tied. The consequence of loose sails blowing about in the wind is that the sails would flap and make the vessel lurch around, rather like an inebriated matelot.

The next surprise, to me at least, is that the original phrase seems to have been three sheets in the wind. One of the very earliest examples in print appeared in Niles’ Weekly Register of 2nd May 1812 and recorded Englishman Thomas Ashe’s experiences in Kentucky where the hospitality was generous and the liquor strong. He noted, “it must not be wondered at that the poor, untutored, savage Kentuckyan got more than two-thirds drunk, that is, as the sailors term it, three sheets in the wind and the fourth shivering, before the dinner was ended.

From this citation we can perhaps deduce two things; first, that it was a phrase that peppered the language of many a salty sea dog and that there was a gradation of sheets to describe the varying states of inebriation. That the latter may be the case is illustrated by an observation from the Journal of Rev. Francis Asbury, published in 1815, for the 26th September 1813 when the worthy gentleman found himself in Kentucky too; “the tavern keepers were kind and polite, as Southern folks should be and as Southern folks ought not to be: they were sometimes two sheets in the wind. O, that liquid fire!

And providing further evidence is this passage from Catherine Ward’s novel, The Fisher’s Daughter, published in 1824; “Wolf replenished his glass at the request of Mr Blust, who, instead of being one sheet in the wind, was likely to get to three before he took his departure.” And Robert Louis Stevenson has the one sheet variant in Treasure Island (1883), Long John Silver saying, “Maybe you think we were all a sheet in the wind’s eye. But I’ll tell you I was sober; “

Another early example, again American, appeared in the edition of the Genius of Liberty for 26th August 1817; “he was about three sheets in the wind, that is to say a little intoxicated and began to talk loud and swear.”  The gloss perhaps suggests the phrase was not so well known in Virginia. It was not until 1821 that the phrase appeared this side of the Atlantic in Pierce Egan’s Real Life of London; “Old Wax and Bristles is about three sheets in the wind.” That the earliest examples are American by origin doesn’t necessarily mean the phrase was an Americanism. Ashe and Astbury were English by origin and the phrase was part of nautical argot.

By 1823 the phrase was sufficiently well established to earn an entry in a lexicon, John Bee’s Slang, A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-ton and the Varieties of Life. There he defines it as “naval, but naturalized ashore, and means drunk, but capable of going along – like a ship which has three sheets braced – main, mizzen, and foresail.” Interestingly, he makes the mistake of confusing sheet for a sail.

To the wind didn’t appear in print until 1894 in the New Year’s Day edition of the Pennsylvania State University Free Lance; “..he espied two old friends approaching, one of them three sheets to the wind and the other piloting him..” Why the change is unclear aand from a nautical perspective, they are opposite ways of proceeding. Whatever the reason, this is the version that has stuck.

After all that, I need a drink. Perhaps I will soon be one sheet in the wind!

What Is The Origin Of (128)?…


Up the spout

When I was a young lad, I remember being fascinated by even by the standards of the time an old fashioned grocery store at the top of Pride Hill in Shrewsbury called Morris’. Entering the emporium your olfactory senses were assaulted by the aromas of fresh coffee, cheese and spice. I was particularly taken by the tubular system along which canisters of money and change shuttled back and forth between, presumably, the cashier and the sales counters. I could have watched it for hours.

Our phrase when used with the verb to go in all its tenses conveys the sense that something has been ruined or has failed. It also has a secondary meaning, when associated with the verb to be – that of being pregnant. In the days before credit cards and payday loan companies, often the only way to generate some readies to tide you over – other than larceny or pick pocketing – was to visit your local pawnbroker. You handed over some of your worldly possessions and in return you would get a few coppers. If you failed to redeem your goods by paying back the amount you had borrowed plus usurious interest, you lost the goods you had pledged.

Pawnbrokers needed a lot of space to store the tat against which money had pledged and often deployed the upper storey of their premises for the purpose. This arrangement, satisfactory, for sure, in keeping the premises in some kind of order, meant that they needed a way of conveying goods up and, occasionally, down again which involved the minimum of effort. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they used a chute, perhaps more like what we now know as a dumb-waiter rather than Heath Robinson-like chutes at Morris’ to accomplish the task.

Pierce Egan on page 366 of his Real Life in London, published in 1821, provided a useful explanation. “Up the spout or up the five are synonymous in their import and mean the act of pledging property with a Pawnbroker for the loan of money – most probably derived from the practice of having a long spout, which reaches from the top of the house of the Pawnbroker (where the goods are deposited for safety until redeemed or sold) to the shop, where they are first received; through which a small bag is dropped upon the ringing of a bell, which conveys the tickets or duplicates to a person above stairs, who, upon finding them (unless too bulky) saves himself the trouble and loss of time of coming down stairs, by more readily conveying them down”.

For the pledger, the sight of some of their more precious possessions disappearing up the spout must have been distressing as there was no certainty that they would ever have the brass to reclaim them. So, naturally, what started as a prosaic description of the pawnbroker’s art developed the more figurative sense of disaster, doom and failure.

Pedants bemoan the modern trend of turning nouns into verbs – the most egregious example, to mind, is the verb to medal which litters sporting commentaries. But it was ever thus and it is perhaps no surprise to find that the verb to spout, usually as a present participle, meant the act of pawning an object. Charles Manby Smith in his Curiosities of London Life of 1853 recorded a tailor going into a pawnbroker and saying “here..I’ve got six waistcoats to make, and I must spout one to buy the trimmings; let’s have three shillings”.

Not all pregnancies are wanted or happy events and so it is easy to see how the expression was used as a slang expression, possibly Scottish in origin, to describe an unwanted pregnancy which may have ruined the mother’s life.