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Dab-dab and a learned idiom

My thanks are to Peter Warne and Stephen Goranson for their comments on the idioms I mentioned last week. I own a cornucopia of idioms not included in my recent book and will dole them out whenever space permits it. Today, I am returning to one of my traditional topics, namely, the history of intractable monosyllabic words. Their origin looks deceptively obvious, but their spread all over the world poses problems. Dab is a case in point. Dictionaries list several homonyms: dab “to strike” (either with a sharp blow as in dialects or with soft pressure), dab “a small flat fish,” and dab “an expert.” There is no problem with the first dab: when we strike, we go dab-dab-dab. This “etymology” is self-evident, and everybody is agreed that the word is sound-imitative, or to use a special term, onomatopoeic. Dab-dab is transparent, and so is tap-tap. Dab “strike with a sharp blow” turned up in texts in the fourteenth century, while the sense “to strike with soft pressure” emerged much later.

A dab. Does it go dab-dab? Origin unknown.
Image by New York Public Library via GetArchive, CC1.0

Was that great word coined anew? Probably. If so, who coined it? Apparently, English speakers did. Who else? They also composed the poem: “Rub-a-dub-dub, — / Three men in a tub, / And who do you think they be? / The butcher, the baker, / The candle-stick maker, / Turn ‘em out, knaves all three.” Though there is another, gentler ending, we are interested only in the opening. As long as we stay with English, all is clear, but the Norwegian dialectal verb dabba “to stamp, to strike heavily” also exists, while in Middle Dutch, dabben “to pinch, fumble, dabble (!)” occurred. Dab-dab is not too different from dub-dub.

Part of the medieval ritual of the accolade (investiture) was dubbing the prospective knight on the cheek, that is, giving him a light blow. The word came to English from French, and it has close cognates elsewhere in the Romance languages. However, it seems to be of Germanic origin. Thus, we have dab-dab, dub-dub, and taptap and can add pat-pat for good measure. German tappen means “to go falteringly, grope one’s way.” Tap is pat, pronounced backwards. Compare Italian patta and French patte “paw.” The German for paw is Pfote. Speakers don’t seem to make much difference between tap and pat or tap and dab. Pat, tap, dab, or k-nock—the result will be more or less the same.

One wonders: Are we dealing with a set of relatively late independent creations or a set of old (even ancient) roots, whose reflexes sound like baby words but are still regular nouns and verbs? Opinions on this score are divided (opinions in etymology are always divided), especially because borrowing (take note!) is always a possibility. The verb dub, for example, was recorded in Old English but only in the chivalric context (“to knight”). The Romance cognates gravitate toward the senses “to process some material; cook, pickle.” For example, the Anglo-Latin verb dubbare meant “to dress leather,” and I wonder whether the Russian verb dubit’ (the same meaning; stress on the second syllable), which is traced in all dictionaries to the Slavic noun dub (pronounced like English doob) “oak,” was not part of the medieval lingua franca of tanners and other artisans, with the Russian word being later linked to the tree name by folk etymology. Be that as it may, one thing is clear: words like dab, dub, pat, and tap can be coined in any place and in any century, forgotten, and coined again. They can also migrate from language to language, especially when the speaking communities are so close as are English, Dutch, German, and Scandinavian.

This is how they tan leather.
Image by Adam Cohn via Flickr, CC2.0.

Several historical linguists have offered a detailed discussion of dab-dab and its kin. One of them was the great Norwegian etymologist Alf Torp. He went so far as to reconstruct the ancient Indo-European root, allegedly present, among others, in Greek dáppo “I dig up; tear to pieces, etc.” In principle, there is nothing improbable in his idea, but while dealing with words like pit-a-pat, tittle-tattle, and the ones mentioned above, one wonders whether they indeed developed from some protoroot, as is the case with man, stone, go, read,and so forth. True to his agenda, the Swiss scholar Wilhelm Oehl, whose name often appears in this blog, spoke about the never-stopping “primitive reproduction” of words like bata and puta in African languages, related (in his terminology!) to English beat, English pat, and Latin battuere “to beat.” Some researchers choose not to commit themselves in such matters. For instance, the latest edition of the most authoritative German etymological dictionary states that German tappen “to tap” is a derivative of Tappe “foot; the sound made by the movement of a foot,” while English sources admit that tap “to strike lightly” is either a borrowing of French taper or an independent imitative formation, similar to flap, rap, slap.

A dab of known origin and certainly not a dabbler.
Image by Bonhams Fine Art Auctioneers & Valuers via Picryl. Public domain.

Most probably, both approaches are correct. Some such sound-imitative words may be really very old, while others like them keep appearing, disappearing, and reemerging again and again. The impulse seems to remain the same through millennia and is pan-human. A word like dab is one of such creations. One, naturally, feels lost when homonyms turn up. As mentioned above, English dab is also the name of a small fish. Are the two words connected? Perhaps: a small fish may really go dab-dab. But since pitter alternates with patter in pitterpatter, why should dub not alternate with dib? And indeed, the verb dib exists. It means “to dip”! And dibble “an instrument for making holes in the ground” exists too. Much better-known is the verb dabble, a rather obvious frequentative form meaning “to dab many times,” though we usually remember only its derogatory sense “to work superficially in some area.” (Frequentative verbs were also mentioned last week.) Dabblers are not respected. But what about dabs? Dab “expert,” synonymous with dabster, is an eighteenth-century noun. A suspicious variant of adept? Or a “word of unknown origin”? And so it goes.

The message of this post, as indicated above, is clear: outwardly simple, inconspicuous monosyllabic words don’t bother speakers but often pose almost insoluble problems to an etymologist.

The story of the idiom persona (non)grata

Persona non grata.
Image by charamelody via Flickr, CC2.0.

Everybody realizes that this idiom is Latin, but not long ago, at the request of the OED, Professor John Considine investigated its origin. The results of his findings are now part of the database of the OED. However, he also published a detailed article on the subject in the periodical Neophilologus 91, 2007, 525-537. Below, I’ll reproduce part of his summary: “…persona grata originates in the language of the late medieval ecclesiastical diplomacy. After sporadic use from the 15th century to the end of the 18th, it and similar forms of words became very important in negotiations between the Protestant monarchies of Germany and the Holy See in and around 1820. Persona grata was then transferred to the language of international diplomacy, where it has flourished since the 1850s; the negative persona non grata, which is now more common than the positive phrase, appears to have developed in English-language contexts in the nineteenth century.”

Feature image by Fil. Al via Flickr, CC2.0

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