I almost let this one slip by because the meaning was so obvious. But then I realized it was an idiom I had never heard before.
The women is explaining to a detective that she knows a guy who is good at e-fits: showing how a person looks after aging several years.<2012 “They’re e-fits she explained. ‘There’s a guy I know on a force [[police]] down south, he’s a dab hand with the software."—Standing in Another Man's Grave by Ian Rankin, page 115
Micahel Quinion tackled this one and I can’t improve on anything he said, so I will just paraphrase the highlights from his discussion:
WORLD WIDE WORDS
A DAB HAND: Someone particularly skilled at a task.
This is mainly a British Commonwealth phrase, commonly used in sentences such as “My son has become a dab hand at renovating cast-off computers”. We’re able to trace its origin back to the end of the seventeenth century, but then the trail runs dry.
The solo word ‘dab’ first showed up in a related sense in a 1691 newspaper followed by its appearance in the Dictionary of the Canting Crew of 1698-99 with that related meaning “an exquisite expert” in some form of roguery. Dab is often reported as being school slang, but that may be a later development, as the early sightings all seem to have had criminal associations. (See above link for some discussion of where the ‘dab’ we know and love, noun and verb – “a dab of butter / dab some butter on” may have come from.
There are many guesses involved and, in short, I think it is safe to say that the origin of ‘a dab hand’ and the noun and verb ‘dab’ is uncertain.
The Oxford English Dictionary offers 7 quotes on the ‘expert’ meaning of ‘dab’ and here is one:
It offers only two quotes for dab hand:<1845 “I wish to show I am a dab in history.”—Punch in East by Thackeray, iv>
In one modern newspaper archive I found 2,275 ‘a dab hand’ hits ranging from 1988 to 2015, which is a goodly number, and the vast majority are from the U.K. in keeping with my never having heard it.<1828 “Dab-hand, expert at any thing.”—Dialect of Craven (edition 2) by W. Carr>
<1870 “He was a dab hand at water-colours. [The combination occurs in many dialect glossaries].”—from Lonsdale and Holderness to W. Somerset.]” by Robert Lynne, II, iii, page 67>
The following quotes are from that newspaper archive:
And as a counterexample my first and the oldest quote is from the U.S. magazine (undoubtedly with international writers):
_________________________<1988 “Nice non-work if you can get it, and Toyota has proved a dab hand at the game.”—The Economist (US), 25 November>
<1996 “. . . from school he dabbled in art but in his mid-20s became a culinary adviser to restaurants after discovering he was a dab hand with a wok.”—The Mirror (London), 14 February>
<1999 “In 1937, the newly created Duke and Duchess of Windsor enjoy a visit to Nazi Germany, dropping in on Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler along the way. The beaming Duke proves a dab hand with his Nazi salutes and delivers glowing praise of the accomplishments of the Third Reich.”—The Mail on Sunday (London), 11 July>
<2005 “He proved a dab hand with a rolling pin while helping prepare bread in a community kitchen, . . .”—Daily Mail (London),18 February>
<2010 “The Cambridge University professor is fascinated by birds, and breeds crows, jackdaws and rooks - as well as being a dab hand at tango and salsa herself.”—Daily Post (Liverpool, England). 26 February>
<2015 “He's a dab hand with the camera, and knows exactly where to go to spot red deer, birds of prey, grouse, mountain hares, salmon and red squirrels.”—The Birmingham Post (England), 12 November>
Ken G – November 16, 2015