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.