“Dab hand”

This noun phrase meaning “expert” (usually followed by at, as in “a dab hand at cookery“) derived from the now-archaic dab, meaning the same thing, which is “frequently referred to as school slang,” according to the OED. The first citation is from The Athenian Mercury in 1691: “[Love is] such a Dab at his Bow and Arrows.”

Dab hand apparently originated as Yorkshire dialect pre-1800, but didn’t become widely used in Britain until the 1950s, according to a Google Ngram. Following a familiar pattern, it peaked in Britain in about 1990, while U.S. use continues to rapidly increase (though it’s still used less than half as often here as there).

There are many dab American  hands nowadays. The distinguished Stanford Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg was quoted in the New York Times in 2011 as follows: “I fancy myself a dab hand at Google, but it drives me crazy,” but the term shows up in less elevated company as well:

“Hughes graduated in May with a degree in entrepreneurship management from Boise State University. Now he’s putting what he learned to work as he functions as a driver, a furniture mover, and at times a dab hand with the little wrenches IKEA encloses in its packaging (his business offers assembly).”–Idaho Business Review, August 22, 2012

“[‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’ director Timur] Bekmambetov, who proved himself a dab hand at vampire thrillers (‘Night Watch,’ ‘Day Watch’) before he directed the 2008 graphic-novel adaptation ‘Wanted,’ handles the violence in an arresting if flashily impersonal style.”–Variety, June 22, 2012

“At Virginia Polytechnic, [architect Kimberly Peck] started playing around with industrial design, and became a dab hand at using the lathe, the milling machine and other mechanical equipment.”–New York Times, April 15, 2012

17 thoughts on ““Dab hand”

  1. Just found your great blog via the BBC website – excellent stuff. ‘Dab-hand’, – my grandfather, a Midlander, trained on the HMS Victory, before the Great War when she was still afload. Wherever it originated, it was certainly used by his generation and later widely in the UK.

  2. I too just found you via Aunty Beeb (a link sent to me by an American friend). I reposted that AND put a link to here to help other find you too. Being originally from Yorkshire, I can attest to there still being many many dab hands at all manner of things residing in God’s Own County.

  3. Another BBC reader here and I’m thoroughly enjoying your work.

    One problem with relying on Google ngrams is that they are based on the written word. Slang expressions like “a dab hand” are more likely to be have been used verbally first and therefore may have existed for quite a while before being adopted by authors and journalists.

  4. .

    In current British English, It is also possible to have something “smack dab in the middle”.
    i.e. emphasising that it is exactly centrally placed.
    A DAB is also, nowadays a digital radio, as well as an edible small fish.


      1. Yes, I’ve never heard “smack dab in the middle” in the UK. “Smack bang in the middle” is a common phrase.

  5. In Wenglish (the hybrid of Welsh and English spoken primarily in the South Wales valleys) the phrase ‘poor dab’ is used where dab = thing or person. If Romney wins next month perhaps Anne will take that into the White House along with her Welsh cake recipe.

  6. Watched “Penny Dreadful” which is set in the 1800’s and an American in London said he considered himself “a “dab hand with spices”. Didn’t know if it was US western or UK. Thanks.

  7. Just came across this phrase in a British cryptic crossword…the clue was”expert producing fish fingers?”…it was the last clue to solve, and I didn’t solve it…interestingly, what I did write in was “debeard” …to remove the beard from a mussel…all I could think of!

  8. Pingback: “Pawky”

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