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Posts Tagged ‘Wisconsin Home and Farm School Association’

Dibs (as in “first dibs”)

Posted by Admin 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.

Posted in Idioms from the 17th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Back Forty

Posted by Admin on January 31, 2014

Every once in a while you’ll hear someone talk about the back forty. When you do, what they’re talking about is a remote and uncultivated or undeveloped piece of land of indefinite size, and not necessarily forty acres in size.

Malaysian born and University of Wisconsin educated Ken Chew is the mayor of Moraga in California, with this term being his second go at being Moraga’s mayor. He has a reputation for saying what he thinks and not mincing his words according to an article published in the January 1, 2014 edition of the Lamorinda Weekly newspaper. Among many subjects discussed in the article by journalist, Sophie Braccini, was a certain section of land leased to a local country club.

The preliminary list includes what is always the first goal in Moraga: fiscal sustainability and a balanced budget. Chew would like to see refinement of the capital improvement plan for all of the town’s assets. “We are doing very well with our roads, but the town owns other properties and we need to be very clear on the maintenance and/or future of these assets,” he said, including the land known as the “Back 40” that the town leases to the Moraga Country Club.

The book “A History Of Appalachia” by Richard Drake, professor emeritus of history at Berea College, published in 2001, discusses Appalachia, from the 1800s onwards, and in great detail, with numerous sources. In this book, the author included this passage:

Most sociologists and anthropologists who have looked into small Appalachian rural communities have found that the local community, apparently fairly democratic, is actually divided by family reputation, income differentials, and the degree of uban sophistication. Other useful analyses trace the distance from urban ways, placing the person closest to the city as “superior” with the rural “back forty” places next, and the remote “holler” as the poorest and least powerful.

In the book “A Stretch On The River: A Novel of Adventures on a Mississippi River Towboat” written by Richard Pike Bissell (1913 – 1977) and published in 1950, the idiom back forty was also used. The story is about the son of a wealthy family who, rather than being drafted to fight in the war, chose to work on a Mississippi River towboat.  The author weaves his tale of a typical trip up the river in such a way that reader is left with an accurate picture of the era when towboating on the Mississippi was an exciting and viable employment for eager, young men. On page 56 of the book, the following is found:

“I seen him. A forty-miler if I ever seen one. By the time we get to Rock Island lock he’ll decide he’s got to go home to help get the hay in or breed the bull or plow the back forty. I seen his brand a many times before.”

A newsletter out of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin known as “Our Boys” was published quarterly by the Wisconsin Home and Farm School Association. In Volume 10 published in January of 1916, under the keen eye of Editor and Business Manager, W.J.C. Ralph, and Associate Editor, R.M. Bradford, the following was announced:

Early in the winter a couple of acres of land was cleared up on the backforty.” The trees were cut into logs, posts and firewood.

Back in 1832, it was determined that 40 acres was the right amount of land that should be made available to settlers in the US Midwest as the population expanded westward. Forty acres was agreed by the government to be small enough and at a low threshold price to advance the frontier. This was in place until 1862 when the Homestead Act of 1862 (which was officially repealed in 1976) determined that 160 acres should be made available at no charge to anyone who would was willing to live on the land and cultivate it for at least five years. In other words, settlers were provided sweat equity in exchange for their land.

Shortly after the Homestead Act of 1862, during the spring and summer of 1865, in South Carolina, there was also a push to provide freed slaves with forty acres and a mule under Sherman’s Special Field Order, No. 15. As can be imagined, it was a highly successful program that provided freed slaves with the opportunity to own property. The concept began to take shape in 1816 when the American Colonization Society was formed and the issue of resettlement for freed African Americans was discussed.

A quarter section was half a mile by half a mile — 160 acres — and was made up of four quarters, each being 40 acres in size. The back forty was usually the forty acres furthest away from the homestead, and was definitely the last to be cultivated since it was the least likely to provide a bountiful crop if cultivated.

Forty acres was accepted by the mid-1750s as a sufficient amount of land with which a farmer’s needs could be reasonably supported. It was determined that forty acres of good land was all a farmer needed for a herd of two hundred sheep, or one of twenty cows, and that forty acres would result in a sufficient number of lambs and calves, wool, butter, cheese and other commodities, to make the land profitable for a farmer.

That being said, the back forty meaning an uncultivated or undeveloped piece of land is pegged to 1862 at the time of the Homestead Act.

Posted in Idioms from the 19th Century | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »