Word Spy Blog

Tag Archives: games

“I Got Dibs!”

Today’s Word Spy post is winter dibs, which is the act of saving a parking space that one has cleared of snow by blocking the spot with one or more chairs or similar objects. The ethics of such a claim are complex and fascinating, but I won’t go into them here. (If you’re interested, see this Straight Dope post as well as The Ethics of Winter Dibs Parking, by the always reliable Tom Vanderbilt.)

My concern here is with the unusual word dibs. To trace its origins, we must go back to the philosopher John Locke, of all people, In his 1693 treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education, he mentions a children’s game:

I have seen little girls exercise whole hours together, and take abundance of pains to be expert at Dibstones, as they call it.

Tali
Knucklebones.
Sipes23/Wikimedia Commons

Dibstones was originally played with the knuckle- or ankle-bones of sheep or other animals (hence the game was also called knucklebones), although later they switched to pebbles and stones. The game was played similar to jacks, with players performing certain tasks or tricks to lay claim to the stones, which they did by yelling “Dibs!”

Over time, the word dibs came to mean the more general sense of “a claim on something,” a sense that first appeared in the 1930s.