My 2012-2013 subscription package for Berkeley Rep arrived in the mail last week. (Highlights: An Iliad, currently at the New York Theater Workshop; and The White Snake, a new offering from the always-spellbinding Mary Zimmerman.) On the back of the subscription form, under the heading “Why You Subscribe,” a bullet point caught my eye:
- Dibs on special events like Robin Williams, John Leguizamo, and David Sedaris.
Of course I recognized the word—it’s playground slang for “a claim.” It seemed interestingly informal for a mainstream theater company’s subscription campaign. (But then again: playground, playful, plays!) It got me thinking: where does dibs come from?
The OED, surprisingly, is no help at all here. The only definition it gives for dibs is “a thick sweet syrup made from grape-juice in Eastern countries.” By “Eastern” the OED means “Middle Eastern”; this dibs comes from colloquial Arabic. I recognized it as a cognate of Hebrew dvash = honey. (UPDATE: See Q. Pheevr’s comment, below, for a correction on my OED research.)
I had to turn to American sources to learn more about the dibs I’d known since childhood. The American Heritage Dictionary says dibs is short for dibstones, “counters used in a game,” but doesn’t provide a history or explain dibs’s American-ness. The Online Etymology Dictionary is a little more helpful, giving 1932 as the first documentation of the word—but no indication of where it was published.
Onward to World Wide Words, Michael Quinion’s indispensable (and UK-inflected) online resource. In a 1999 entry, Quinion wrote that the 1932 citation for dibs appeared in American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society—which means only that some academic had finally gotten around to noticing it. “It comes into existence seemingly fully formed, with no obvious links to any previous meaning of the word,” Quinion observes acerbically, adding: “That’s hardly likely, of course.” As for the putative origin, dibstones, that word “is obscure to the point of terminal murkiness.”
Perhaps you’ve wondered whether dibs and divvy—as in “divvy it up”—were connected. That’s the theory Leo Rosten advances in The Joys of Yiddish, in his entry for pushke (a can kept in every home for charitable contributions). Rosten says dibs and divvies are not Yiddish but Chicagoese, used interchangeably “for anything to be divided up.”
I approached the Wikipedia entry for dibs with the necessary trepidation, but was pleased to discover that it is informative and well annotated. One of its sources is “No One Seems to Have Dibs on Word’s Origins,” a 2005 Chicago Tribune column by Eric Zorn with all sorts of fascinating lore about dibs and other slang terms for claims. Zorn writes that the Random House Dictionary says dibs probably came from dubs, “a shortened form of ‘double’ that's used in marbles ‘to claim two or more marbles knocked out of the ring by the same shot.’”
Also in the Wikipedia entry:
- A 1937 edition of Webster’s Dictionary connects dibs to the game of jacks (which is probably similar to dibstones).
- “In Boston, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, ‘dibs’ also refers to the practice of holding a shoveled-out parking space after a heavy snowfall by putting chairs, laundry baskets, or other items in the street to mark the claimed space.”
- “In the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia, ‘bags’, ‘tax’ or ‘bagsie’ (or variants including ‘begsie’ and ‘bugsy’) is used to the same effect.”
- “The Scout movement has a similar phrase which is not linked to ‘dib’, but is actually ‘dyb’. DYB is an acronym for ‘Do Your Best’, and is used as a challenge which is responded to with DOB – Do Our Best.”
- In Spain, the equivalent to dibs is primer (“first”)—but next door in Portugal it’s dibs! Dibs is also used, untranslated, in Israel, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the New England variation on dibs that I learned from blogger/Internet friend Karen Wise: hi-hosey. Naturally, no one knows for sure where that term came from, either.
UPDATE #1: I neglected to mention a commercial use of dibs: 1stdibs.com, an online marketplace for antiques, semi-antiques, and other beautiful things “in the realm of the ludicrously expensive,” as Steven Kurutz put it in the New York Times last September.
UPDATE #2: Separated by a Common Language published a wonderful post in 2010 about bags, dibs, and shotgun. Author Lynneguist says it’s one of her most-read entries by people outside the US and UK. (Thanks to @BabyNameWizard for reminding me!)