Q: In your recent post about dribbling, you talk about the long-dead verb “drib,” the source of “dribble.” Is that also the source of “dribs and drabs”?
A: Yes, that old verb “drib” gave us “dribs and drabs” as well as “dribble.”
As we noted in our post, the “dribble” we associate with basketball and drinking fountains comes from a defunct 16th-century verb, “drib.”
This old verb originally meant “to fall in drops,” “to go on little by little,” and “to let fall or utter as in driblets,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
A noun form showed up in Scottish and dialectal English in the early 18th century. This “drib” meant a “drop” or a “petty or inconsiderable quantity,” the OED says. In other words, it meant the same thing as the earlier “driblet.”
The noun “drib” was first recorded in the Scottish poet Allan Ramsay’s Ode From Horace (circa 1730): “That mutchkin-stoup it hauds but dribs” (“That small flagon it holds only dribs”).
Soon afterward, Jonathan Swift used the word in his satirical poem On Dr. Gibbs’s Psalms. (1745): “Thy heavy hand restrain; / Have mercy Dr. Gibbs; / Do not, I pray thee, paper stain / With rhymes retail’d in dribbs.” (We’ve expanded to citation to get in more of the poem.)
The usage eventually migrated to America, where Abraham Lincoln used it in a letter to Gen. George B. McClellan on May 25, 1862: “We are sending such regiments and dribs from here and Baltimore as we can spare to Harper’s Ferry.”
But before Lincoln’s time, people were already using the expression “dribs and drabs” to mean bits and pieces (or, as the OED says, “small and intermittent sums or amounts”).
The earliest example in Oxford is from a letter written by an English governess named Ellen Weeton on March 17, 1809:
“Whether it be better to have a little [news] and often, or a great deal and seldom, I leave to your better judgment to determine…. You may have it in dribs and drabs if you like it better.” (From Miss Weeton’s Journal of a Governess, Vol. 1, 1807-11.)
So what is a “drab”? Interestingly, the noun “drab” made its first appearance (pluralized) in that very expression. Before “dribs and drabs,” it had no independent existence—at least in that sense of the word.
Two earlier senses of “drab,” which the OED says are probably unrelated to this one, were first recorded in the early 1500s: (1) “a dirty or untidy woman,” as in a “slattern”; and (2) a “harlot, prostitute, strumpet.”
Apparently the expression “dribs and drabs” later inspired a separate use of “drab” to mean a small amount of money, a usage first recorded, the OED says, in the late 1820s.
Oxford’s earliest citation is from William Carr’s book The Dialect of Craven, in the West-Riding of the County of York (2nd ed., 1828): “Drab, a small debt. ‘He’s gain away for good, and he’s left some drabs.’ ”
An entirely different “drab,” the adjective meaning dull, plain, or light brown, took on its various senses in the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s believed to have evolved from a noun for plain, undyed cloth, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.