Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Dibs (as in “first dibs”)

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 14, 2015

The well-used word dibs (as in first dibs) means to lay claim.  In other words, when someone says they have first dibs on something, they are laying claim of first rights or choice on whatever the something happens to be.  In other words, it’s a claim to the right to use or enjoy something exclusively or before anyone else … a sort of reservation, if you will.

The Wall Street Journal published a news article on January 14, 2001 that talked about how Chicagoans marked their claim for a parking spot after snow was shoveled out of the way.  The article discussed how lawn furniture, plastic milk crates, vacuum cleaners, lamps, fans, paint cans, step ladders, and other sundry items were used to lay claim to parking spots to prevent others from parking their vehicles in available cleared spots.

It’s called the dibs system — as in, “I got dibs on that space.”  And many here find it deplorable.

Even Jimmy Buffett has called first dibs, to Margaritaville no less, according to a news story in the Rome News-Tribune of January 7, 1998.  The story was about Emma and Neil Mathews who had run a restaurant by the name of Margaritaville in Kingman, Arizona for more than ten years.  The restaurant owners received a letter from the singer-songwriter advising them that he owned the name Margaritaville as a trademark, and that it was used to promote his own restaurants in Key West and New Orleans.  The article was entitled, “Buffet Says He Has Dibs On Name.”

The Daily Reporter of February 8, 1984 used the word not only in a story headline but in the story as well.  Jim Mayer of the Iowa News Service wrote about the regulations in Iowa that addressed the issue of deer killed by vehicles.  In fact, for the most part, the headline was the first sentence of the article.

Driver Has First Dibs On Deer Killed In Vehicular Accident, But Obey Rules. 

One of the helpful hints included this:

Oden said if a driver hits a deer and the deer is either killed or injured so badly that it has to be killed, the driver, or someone he designates, should notify officers, “preferably a conservation officer, highway patrol trooper, or sheriff.”  These officers can complete the paperwork, Oden said.  The form includes a tear-off portion that is given to the person claiming the deer.

During the Depression era, the word dibs was part of a much longer idiom and when someone was seen eating a piece of fruit, someone would inevitably shout out that they had dibs on the core, meaning the core of the fruit in case the first person had left anything on the core to be had.

In the poem, “I Got Dibs” by L.J. Wright and published in “Our Boys” magazine in October 1915, the sense of the word is clear.  The magazine was published quarterly by the Wisconsin Home and Farm School Association, with W.J.C. Ralph as Editor and Business Manager, and R.M. Bradford as Association Editor.  The fact that the poem was included in this issue demonstrates that the word was understood by children and adults alike.  The poem included these two stanzas.

When a morsel is left
In a cooking dish,
This short little sentence
will voice a boy’s wish.

Each boy cries out
As quick as he can,
“I got first dibs
On the baking pan.

The book, “A General Dictionary of Provincialisms” by William Holloway of Rye in Sussex, and published in 1888, gave a definition for dibs as well as provided an example.  It should be noted that his book was based upon previously published books from the late 1700s and early 1800s, which the author mentioned in the Preface.  With regards to dibs, he wrote the following commentary.

The small bones in the knees of a sheep or lamb, uniting the bones above and below the joint.  Five of these bones are used by boys, with which they play a game called “Dibs” in West Sussex.

The term is an abbreviation of a children’s game called dibstones that dates back to the 17th century, with first mention of the game being in 1690.   Here’s how the game was played:  Children would spread knucklebones from sheep on the ground and these became known as dibs.  The game was played much the way jacks is played these days.  The goal of the game was to capture as many knucklebones aka dibs as possible over the course of the game.  Each time a knucklebone was taken, the child shouted “Dibs!”  The game had an effect on these children, and as they became adults, they would continue to use the word dibs when they claimed something before anyone else had a chance to lay claim to it

Idiomation therefore pegs dibs to 1690 (and possibly earlier when the game first became popular among children) when the game of dibstones was played and the word dibs was shouted during the course of the game.

Now while Americans are busy calling first dibs, Canadians call shotgun.  Idiomation wonders how things went from knucklebones (or dibs) to shotguns.  Watch for the explanation next week on Idiomation.

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One Response to “Dibs (as in “first dibs”)”

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