a dab hand

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a dab hand

Post by Ken Greenwald » Tue Nov 17, 2015 1:54 am

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.
<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
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.

Micahel Quinion tackled this one and I can’t improve on anything he said, so I will just paraphrase the highlights from his discussion:


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:
<1845 “I wish to show I am a dab in history.”—Punch in East by Thackeray, iv>
It offers only two quotes for dab hand:
<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>
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.

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
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Re: a dab hand

Post by trolley » Tue Nov 17, 2015 3:20 am

It seems odd that to dabble in/at something is to do it superficially. It takes a lot more than dabbling to be a dab?
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Re: a dab hand

Post by Bobinwales » Wed Nov 18, 2015 1:30 pm

You may be interested to know that in the South Wales dialect, we call it 'Wenglish', we also have a dab. It is almost always "poor dab", meaning someone who is not having the best of luck.

"He was down to his last 10p and he knocked his pint over, poor dab".
"She just slipped down to the shops without her coat and it tipped down. She was soaked, poor dab".
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Signature: All those years gone to waist!
Bob in Wales

Re: a dab hand

Post by tony h » Wed Nov 18, 2015 9:04 pm

Somewhere lost in he vacuum of my mind is a connection with "blessed".

and with the first references citing Yorkshire as the center (as all Yorkshire men will agree) I wonder if there is a Norse/Danish connection.

Leeds: dab,
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Wbw ... nd&f=false

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Wbw ... nd&f=false

1840 a dab hand at a boat
https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ty6 ... nd&f=false

1797 Essays and criticisms
Oliver Goldsmith MDCCXCVII
On the basis that these are regurgitations of previously printed works this usage of dab must also be available prior in some printed form.
one writer excels at a plan, or the title page; another works away the body of the book; and a third is a dab at the index

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=CiV ... nd&f=false
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Signature: tony

I'm puzzled therefore I think.

End of topic.
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