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Dribs and drabs

Q From Lynn Peterson: I overheard someone recently saying money was arriving in dribs and drabs. What is the origin of that phrase? Is it to do with art or painting?

A Neither of those things, as it happens. Through its survival, dribs and drabs — scattered or sporadic amounts of something — contains some interesting etymological archaeology.

Drib is known in some English, Irish and Scottish dialects from at least the eighteenth century, meaning an inconsiderable quantity or a drop and most probably is a variant form of drip or drop. It was taken by emigrants to the US and at one time was fairly common there. The English Dialect Dictionary quotes a letter written by Abraham Lincoln in 1862: “We are sending such regiments and dribs from here and Baltimore as we can spare to Harper’s Ferry”.

The experts are undecided whether the second half is a mere echo of the first, as in reduplicated compounds like helter-skelter, see-saw and hurly-burly, or if drab is a real word in its own right.

Drab certainly existed as a dialect term that could mean much the same as drib, though it was used in particular for a minor debt or a small sum of money. The first example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a glossary of the dialect of Craven in Yorkshire of 1828 with that meaning: “He’s gain away for good, and he’s left some drabs.” [He has gone away for ever and he’s left some debts.] The OED is fairly sure that it isn’t the same word as the one which describes a dirty and untidy woman, which is probably linked to the old Low German drabbe, a mire. Nor is it the word for something drearily dull — this originally referred to undyed cloth and comes from French. The English Dialect Dictionary, written at the end of the nineteenth century, notes that the word is recorded only from Yorkshire and Cheshire.

The limited distribution of drab suggests that the word in the phrase is indeed a mere variation on drib for the sake of a neat and bouncy phrase.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 24 Mar. 2007

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 24 March 2007.