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Random Thoughts

I Got Dibs

Hudson Cooper
Posted 11/12/21

Many of you might recall that the last paragraph of my previous column included a reference to having “first dibs.” Unlike shingles, the flu, pneumonia and the various strains of Covid …

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Random Thoughts

I Got Dibs


Many of you might recall that the last paragraph of my previous column included a reference to having “first dibs.” Unlike shingles, the flu, pneumonia and the various strains of Covid you do not need a vaccination to prevent dibs. In fact, in most cases it is a good thing to announce, “I got first dibs.”

When you are with a group of friends and something enticing such as a pizza pie or a dozen donuts is placed on the table, calling first dibs means you get to make the first selection. By doing so, you are guaranteed not to get stuck with the smallest slice of pizza or the non-sugary plain tasting old-fashioned donut. Speaking of pizza, what is the deal with the guy in charge of slicing the pie? You do not have to be Einstein to figure out that it takes four equally spaced cuts with the pizza wheel to get eight identical triangular slices.

Of course, the trick to getting the first pick of anything is to just shout out “dibs.” There is really no need to say the word “first.” As your friends enviously watch you take the big slice with a lot of sausage or the double chocolate dipped blueberry donut with sprinkles, you can walk away as they fight over the scraps.

There are many theories on how the word dibs entered our vocabulary. One of the theories that seems to be the most likely, relates to a children’s game in the 17th century. Played in England, it was called dibstones and resembled what we now call “Jacks.” The dibstones were tossed on the ground. A player bounced a small ball and picked up as many dibstones as possible before the ball hit the ground again. If successful, the child shouted “dibs.”

America can lay claim to being the inventor of “first dibs.” It began in the early 1900’s. We do not know exactly where it started. Historians of entomology are quick to reference to a charitable group that provided food and shelter to homeless boys. The Wisconsin Home and Farm Association’s pamphlet in 1907 included a poem with the text, “I got first dibs on the baking pan.” So, you can only imagine the paltry amount of food the boys were served if they fought over baking pan scraps. It is right out of “Oliver Twist” except in England they would have just called dibs.

I am sure some of my astute readers realized that in the previous paragraph I used the word “entomology” instead of the correct “etymology.” Entomology is the study of insects. Etymology is the study of the history of words. It is just one of my little tricks to keep you on your toes.

Some mathematicians have taken etymology to the next level. They have created an “Ngram” which is a graphic computation of linguistics and word usage. They did exhaustive research of the use of the word “dibs.” It shows a steady usage of the word until a plunging dip in the graph in 1932. Nobody can explain the dip of dibs, but the word makes a surprise comeback in 1980 for no discernible reason.

I remember taking road trips with some of my friends in college. Usually, the guy with the biggest car was coerced into driving so we could all fit. Walking to the car, inevitably someone called “Shotgun.” Unlike calling “first dibs,” shouting out “shotgun” only meant one thing. The caller got to sit in the front passenger seat while the rest of us crammed into the back. I am not sure of the etymology of the use of “shotgun,” but I assume it dates back to the days of the stagecoach. Back then, the guy with the shotgun provided security as he sat next to the driver and kept a watch out for bandits. If I got the etymology correct, hopefully there is a Ngram waiting for my perusal.


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