English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Dribbling, on court and on bib

Q: I was watching an NCAA game on TV after visiting a friend with a new baby. One of the players was dribbling when I had this thought. Did the “dribble” on the court and the “dribble” on the bib come from the same source?

A: Yes, the “dribble” that you use to move a ball around and the “dribble” that wets your shirt front are from the same fountain. 

The ultimate source is a long-dead verb, “drib,” which the Oxford English Dictionary says was “apparently an onomatopoeic formation” arising out of the nouns “drop” or “drip.” (An onomatopoeic word sounds like what it means.)

The defunct “drib,” which dates back to 1523 in English writing, had a number of meanings in its first couple of decades: “to fall in drops,” “to go on little by little” (a figurative usage), and “to let fall or utter as in driblets,” the OED says.

The verb may also have been used early on to mean “drool” or “slaver,” but Oxford’s example for that sense of the word, in a quotation about drunkards, appears with a question mark, indicating the meaning isn’t certain.

A sports usage emerged in the  mid-1500s, when “drib” was a term in archery meaning to shoot an arrow that falls short or wide of the mark.  But the verb “drib” in all its senses was about to die out.

In the latter half of the century, to “drib” became to “dribble,” a new verb the OED describes as a “frequentative of drib.” (A frequentative is a word, like “blabber” or “cackle,” that expresses a repetitive action.)

The first recorded example of “dribble,” in 1567, used the word in the old archery sense.   

But the common meaning of “dribble” since the later 1500s or the 1600s—whether literal or figurative—has been to let fall in drops, as in a trickle; to emit in driblets; and finally to drool or slaver, a usage probably influenced  by the verb “drivel,” the OED suggests.

Though “dribble” died out as a term in archery, other sporting senses came along in the 1700s, some of them not recorded in the OED.

For instance, we’ve found citations dating back to 1739 for “dribble” used in the game of dice, meaning to gently pour the dice from the cup or hand instead of tossing them.

This quotation is from the December 1739 issue of the Champion, a London political journal edited by Henry Fielding: “We often see a blundering Fellow, who scarce knows on which Side the Odds are, dribble out his bad Chance upon the Table, and sweep the whole Board.”

Apparently, “dribbling” at dice was a good way to cheat. This explanation is from Theophilus Swift’s annotated poem The Gamblers (1777):

“The Dribble (as the word imports) is when, with an easy but ingenious motion, the caster pours as it were the dice on the Abacus, or Black-board; when, if he chance to have been long a practitioner, he may suddenly cog with his fore-finger one of the cubes.”

We’ve also found that the verb was used in games of marbles at least as far back as a couple of centuries ago.

James Boaden, in his biography of the actor John Kemble, recounts a conversation the two men had in the fall of 1800 when they stopped to watch a group of chimneysweeps playing marbles in the street.

Kemble, according to Boaden, “suddenly called out, as he had when a boy, ‘Fain dribbling,’ and taking up a marble that lay at the greatest distance from the ring, he knuckled down, and in the real and true style struck out of it the marble he aimed at.” (From Memoirs of the Life of John Philip Kemble Esq., published in 1825.)

And we found this example from 1831, in an article satirizing newspaper reports of the doings of the children of the aristocracy:

“The Duke of Drumstick and the Marquis of Trundlehoop knelt down to a match of marbles at a quarter-past ten on Tuesday last, the 26th ult. His grace was heard to observe it was ‘fine fun.’ Lord Trundlehoop turns up his righthand sleeve at long taw—the Duke does not, and his marbles dribble, but his Grace plays excellently nevertheless.” (From the New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, August 1831.)

Besides marbles, the verb “dribble” was used in skittles, an early form of bowling. This definition is from The West Somerset Word-Book, or Glossary, published by the English Dialect Society, 1875-86:

“DRIBBLE: … To cause to move slowly. In playing at marbles, ‘to dribble up’ is to shoot the taw slowly so as to make it stop near some desired point. At skittles, ‘a dribbling ball’ is one that goes slowly up to the pins.”

And as the OED says, “dribble” has also been used in billiards, where it means “to give (a ball) a slight push.”

The dictionary’s earliest citation is from Joseph Bennett’s book Billiards (1873): “To keep the white by the spot, and by the same stroke to dribble the red over the corner.”

But we found an older example, from 1869: “I … taught him to seek for safety, to dribble gently up to his adversary’s ball when attempting a ‘pot.’ ” (From John Roberts’s book Roberts on Billiards.)

Now we come to the more familiar sports uses of “dribble,” which have to do with ball handling in team sports. Here, to “dribble” means to propel the ball in a series of short moves.

The earliest such use involved 19th-century British football (what Americans call soccer, as we’ve written before on the blog).

As the OED explains, to “dribble” means “to keep (the ball) moving along the ground in front of and close to one by a rapid succession of short pushes, instead of sending it as far as possible by a vigorous kick.”

Here are Oxford’s two earliest citations for this sense of the word:

“The Eton game, when the ‘long-behind’ is dribbling the ball before his feet slowly forward.” (From the Sporting Gazette, 1863.)

“ ‘Dribbling,’ as the science of working the ball along the ground by means of the feet is technically termed.” (From the Football Annual, 1868.)

It was inevitable that with the American invention of basketball in the early 1890s, the verb “dribble” would make itself useful yet again.

As the OED says, the verb has two meanings in basketball: (1) “to bounce (the ball) continuously with one’s hand, esp. while moving around the court”; and (2) “to move along the court while bouncing the ball continuously with one’s hand.”

Here are the OED’s earliest recorded examples for each sense of the word:

“The ball may be dribbled along the ground with the hand.” (From an Indiana newspaper, the Daily Journal, of Logansport, April 1893.)

“ ‘Dribbling’ or bouncing the ball was a play they did not discover the excellence of until this year.” (From the publication Men, February 1898.)

And the rest is history, along with Villanova’s victory over North Carolina in the final seconds of this year’s NCAA championship game.

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