“Bits and Bobs”

As noted in the previous post, I was surprised to see Harvard historian Jill Lepore use “bits and bobs” in a New Yorker piece; the phrase seemed just too British to be used by an American. But to paraphrase John Lennon, Lepore is “not the only one.”

Backing up a bit, “bits and bobs” does not have its own entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, but is included in a larger entry for various expressions that include “bit.” It’s lumped with “bits and pieces” (very familiar to Americans) and “bits and bats” (not so) and defined as “fragments, oddments, odds and ends; small articles, personal belongings, bric-à-brac.” The first citation is an entry in A Warwickshire Word-book, 1896, which gave a sample sentence: “Gather up your bits-and-bobs, and let me lay the tea.”

However, I have found in the Google Books database a use that seems to precede that by two years. It’s in the novel Baptist Lake, by John Davidson (a Scottish writer):

For an hour and more, Mrs. Tiplady entertained Salerne with gossip — light, if a little muddy, like the froth of porter — with bits and bobs of music-hall songs and step- dances, and with caresses brief and birdlike — the wariest of landladies, deep in love with her viking as she was.

Google Books also suggests that “Bits and Bobs” was used as a chapter heading in a photography yearbook a year earlier, in 1893, but the date can’t be confirmed from what Google shows of the book.

On the matter of “bits and bobs” appearing in American sources, Google Ngram Viewer shows sporadic use in the twentieth century, with a gradual increase starting in the ’70s.

Screen Shot 2018-03-23 at 10.03.22 AM

The expression has been used 57 times in the New York Times, some but not all coming in quotes from British people. The first appearance is in a 1951 review of a children’s book about making puppets, using, for example, “the bits and bobs to be found in a young boy’s pocket.” And the most recent is in a December 2017 Vows column, which describes one of the two grooms: “He was always creative and enjoyed making crafts with bits and bobs of paper he had saved, ticket stubs and back-of-the-envelope doodles.”

In any case, it’s a useful expression, not quite the same as “bits and pieces”–which for me, anyway, always brings to mind the Dave Clark Five song. I imagine it’s here to stay.

8 responses to ““Bits and Bobs”

  1. “deep in love with her viking as she was” – what?

  2. I doubt that the more vulgar version ‘odds and sods’ will ever catch on Stateside.

    • I think of that as having a slightly different meaning. Bits and bobs is a neutral term for paraphernalia (e.g. the contents of my mother’s knitting bag), but odds and sods is more pejorative, and means remnants, leftovers, useless junk etc.

    • I only know that phrase as the title of an album by The Who. (Odds and ends, bits and pieces are the phrases I know).

  3. My mother used to make lace and had cushions with about 50 “Bobbins” dangling from them. Bobbins are spindles of wood (usually) with thread wound around them. Just curious that the original expression (bits and bobs) may have had a connection with weaving, embroidery, sewing, lace making etc.

  4. David Pothecary

    I always wondered whether it was more to do with money – since the slang for a threepenny piece was a bit and the slang for a shilling was a bob.

  5. Have you seen this? I haven’t heard the word “codswallop” for a long time and certainly not here in the US. I’ve lived here over 40 years. Brenda Harris

    https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/4/16/1757393/-Comedy-alert-Kellyanne-Conway-is-concerned-about-the-self-centered-liar-hogging-the-spotlight?detail=emaildkre

    On Fri, Mar 23, 2018 at 10:15 AM, Not One-Off Britishisms wrote:

    > Ben Yagoda posted: “As noted in the previous post, I was surprised to see > Harvard historian Jill Lepore use “bits and bobs” in a New Yorker piece; > the phrase seemed just too British to be used by an American. But to > paraphrase John Lennon, Lepore is “not the only one.” Back” >

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