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Dab hand

Posted by R. Berg on May 30, 2001

In Reply to: Dab hand posted by ESC on May 29, 2001

: : : Does anyone know the derivation of the phrase "dab hand"?

: : I don't have the answer. But to get the discussion ball rolling:
: : "British English A to Zed" by Norman W. Schur, it had "dab" (with a b) meaning "to be especially adept at," "dab in the hand" meaning "bribe," and "dabs" meaning fingerprints.

: : "The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology" by Robert K. Barnhart (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 1995): DAB -- noun. Probably before 1300, heavy blow with a weapon. Verb -- before 1307, deliver a heavy blow with a weapon. Both noun and verb are of uncertain origin. The meaning of strike lightly appeared in 1532, and that of pat with something soft or moist, in 1562.

: "Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable," 16th edition, revised by Adrian Room (HarperCollins, New York, 1999): DAB -- clever or skilled, as commonly in the phrase 'a dab hand.' The word probably comes from dab in the sense of 'touch lightly.' '(Love is) such a Dab at his Bow and Arrows.' 'Athenian Mercury,' IV, No. 3 ."

"Dab hand" comes from "dab" (noun), meaning one who is proficient at something, an expert. Even the editors of the Oxford Engl. Dict. admit to not knowing the origin of this sense of "dab": "Appears before 1700; frequently referred to as school slang: origin unknown. Conjectures have been offered as to its being a corruption of 'adept,' and of 'dapper,' but without any other evidence than appears in the general likeness and use of the words. It is possible that it is a derivative of DAB v." "Dab" (verb) is to strike, then to touch lightly, and so on, as above.