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Category Archives: word history

Words That Turn Twenty in May, 2016

In honour of Word Spy’s 20th birthday earlier this year, throughout 2016 I’m highlighting words that are celebrating their own 20th birthdays.

Here’s a list of words that were coined (or have an earliest citation) in May, 1996:

n. Substandard head protection, particularly a poor quality hockey helmet.
Earliest citation date: May 10, 1996
n. A programmer who specializes in the Common Gateway Interface scripts that accept and handle input from most web page forms.
Earliest citation date: May 1, 1996
n. When a dog or cat sniffs or jumps onto a counter looking for food.
Earliest citation date: May 25, 1996
n. Feelings of dissatisfaction and mental bloatedness after spending an inordinate amount of time performing a task without tangible benefit.
Earliest citation date: May 1, 1996
n. Gardening that takes places in hostile or difficult conditions.
Earliest citation date: May 28, 1996
n. The practice of creating faked photographs, usually by manipulating the images with software.
Earliest citation date: May 5, 1996
n. A business that combines a grocery store and a restaurant.
Earliest citation date: May 27, 1996
n. Mountain biker slang for a person who commutes to work on a bicycle.
Earliest citation date: May 9, 1996
n. A heterosexual person who is open to relationships with people of the same sex.
Earliest citation date: May 7, 1996
n. A person whose opposition to technology manifests itself in, among other things, a preference for pencils.
Earliest citation date: May 19, 1996
n. A very short literary work, typically no more than a few hundred words.
Earliest citation date: May 11, 1996
n. Attempting to solve a mechanical or electrical problem by hitting or kicking the failed device.
Earliest citation date: May 18, 1996
n. A rebuttal, inserted into an argument, that refutes an anticipated counter-argument; a rebuttal given in advance of another’s argument.
Earliest citation date: May 26, 1996
n. A person who eats only unprocessed, unheated, and uncooked food, especially organic fruits, nuts, vegetables, and grains.
Earliest citation date: May 1, 1996
n. A momentary lapse in memory, particularly one experienced by a senior citizen.
Earliest citation date: May 3, 1996
pp. Repeating a word dozens or even hundreds of times within a web page.
Earliest citation date: May 22, 1996
v. To spend money on items priced below normal retail cost and thus save the difference.
Earliest citation date: May 24, 1996
n. A mother who returns to work soon after giving birth.
Earliest citation date: May 29, 1996
n. A telecommunications tower disguised as a natural object such as a tree, or hidden in a tall structure such as a church steeple or flag pole.
Earliest citation date: May 11, 1996
n. Science that is skewed or biased, especially toward a particular industry.
Earliest citation date: May 8, 1996
n. Computer-generated ads, logos, and products that are superimposed on a live video feed or inserted into a completed movie or television show.
Earliest citation date: May 19, 1996
n. The attitude that a person has just one life to live, so should live it well.
Earliest citation date: May 26, 1996

Words That Turn Twenty in April, 2016

In honour of Word Spy’s 20th birthday earlier this year, throughout 2016 I’m highlighting words that are celebrating their own 20th birthdays.

Here’s a list of words that were coined (or have an earliest citation) in April, 1996:

n. Computer technology that uses biometric sensors to detect physical characteristics that relate to moods and emotions; the computer simulation of moods and emotions.
Earliest citation date: April 27, 1996
n. A car dashboard used as a drum.
Earliest citation date: April 24, 1982
pp. Marking up a public sign to correct or point out a grammatical error or typo.
Earliest citation date: April 20, 1996
n. An activist who supports or lobbies for laws that ban infant circumcisions.
Earliest citation date: April 30, 1996
adj. Having a one-word name.
Earliest citation date: April 12, 1996
n. A form of entertainment in which a person acts out scenes from a movie while a silent version of the movie plays in the background.
Earliest citation date: April 22, 1996
n. Movies that are not very exciting or interesting, but that one feels one must see because they are educational or otherwise uplifting.
Earliest citation date: April 17, 1996
n. A sport in which a person is strapped inside a large sphere which is itself held inside a larger sphere by a cushion of air, and then rolled down a hill or along the ground.
Earliest citation date: April 21, 1996

Wordsmith as a verb

While investigating the verb form of the noun wordsmith (don’t judge: it’s what I do), I discovered not only that it’s very old (the earliest citation I could find was from 1943; see the ad, below), but the derivative form wordsmithing is positively ancient, as witnessed by this delightful citation (the author, alas, is unknown) that I found in the February 9, 1899 edition of The Record-Argus (Greenville, Pennsylvania):

Words, like men, must have ancestors or be self-made. Of the old words many lose their primitive vigor and sink into the dead-alive suburbs of the dictionary. And the self-made words come in end take their places in the busy marts of life. And again, like men, these self-made words are of two kinds—the quiet, strong kind that endures, and the pompous, pushing kind, with ponderous polysyllabic paunch that oft passes for dignity with the public. The words that are the aristocrats of this generation sink to genteel boarding house conversation in the next, and are embalmed in the next. Man riots in wants, but man has not really talked very long; his tongue runs away with him. Small wonder that in slang every man tried his hand at word-smithing.

The OED has 1920 as its earliest example of wordsmithing, so this is a significant antedating.

The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), June 30, 1943 (click to enlarge)

Listening-In: A Short History of “Eavesdropper”

Today’s Word Spy post is eavesread, “to surreptitiously read the text that another person is reading or writing.” This is the eyes-instead-of-ears equivalent of eavesdrop, which you probably know means “to secretly listen in on a conversation,” but what can this unsavoury act possible have to do with eaves or drops? There is a connection, but to see it we need to return to the dim mists of the English language, back to the ninth century. Even as early as that, people talked about a house having yfesdrype, which later became eavesdrip. Both terms at first referred to the water that drips off the eaves of a house during a rainstorm. The word later changed to eavesdrop, and it came to mean the area on which rainwater tended to fall off the eaves of a house.

Your typical eaves only extend a small amount past the walls, so this eavesdrop area would be fairly close to the house. If this area also happened to be near an open window or door, then it would be an ideal spot to stand and listen in on a conversation within the house. By the fifteenth century, some crooks were doing just that, and these wrongdoers were called eavesdroppers. Writing in one of very first law dictionaries — with the wonderful title of Les termes de la ley; or Certain difficult and obscure words and terms of the common laws and statutes of this realm now in use, expounded and explained — John Rastell defined these new miscreants as follows:

Eavesdroppers are such as stand under walls or windows by night or day to hear news, and to carry them to others, to make strife and debate amongst their neighbours.

By the eighteenth century, the word had generalized to refer to anyone who listened secretly to a conversation, even without the possibility of getting wet.

“In these humble essaykins”: Names for Short Nonfiction

In 1860, the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray was hired as editor of the new literary journal, The Cornhill Magazine. Besides his editorial duties, Thackeray also wrote for the magazine, most notably a series of columns he titled, The Roundabout Papers. Thackeray often referred to these charming, chatty epistles as ”essays,” a word that had been in the language, relatively undisturbed, for more than two and half centuries. The term was borrowed from the French essaies, which the philosopher Michel de Montaigne had used as the title for his 1580 collection of observations and musings. The word essai means “trial or test,” and that’s how Montaigne viewed his writing: as a kind of experiment in prose. Nearly 20 years later, Francis Bacon used the name Essayes for a collection of his own writings, and the word’s calling as a literary form was set.

For the longest time, writers applied the moniker to any nonfiction piece of less than book length. Montaigne’s and Bacon’s essays ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand words. Thackeray’s columns were a couple of thousand words each, a length that must have seemed comically short to the author of the 300,000-word epic novel, Vanity Fair. So short, in fact, that about a year into his editorship he introduced a new word for his columns:

In these humble essaykins I have taken leave to egotize.

The suffix -kin is used to indicate when something is a small version of another. For example, a napkin is a small nape, which is an old word for a tablecloth, while a firkin (seen in many a pub name) is a small cask for liquids (the fir prefix meaning “one fourth”). So an essaykin is a small essay. Thackeray’s whimsical coinage didn’t catch on, but it has a significant place in the long history of attempts to find a name for the short nonfiction piece.

One variation that did secure a place in the language is essayette, where the -ette suffix again signifies a diminutive form. The Oxford English Dictionary has an earliest citation from 1877, but I found the following in the December 3, 1870 edition of The Spectator :

If you have been to Saratoga, the American Baden, for example, you realize the place again in Mr. Smart’s vivid sketch; and, if not, you feel curious to go and study its unique and indigenous phenomena; and you finally take up the thread of some one of Mr. Smart’s light but very suggestive essayettes on character, and go off to bed.

Essayette is an uncommon word that stays viable because it gets reinvented periodically by the linguistically ludic. Describing a piece as a short essay is prosaic, but bestowing it with the “neologism” essayette is playful. This explains the word’s admirable longevity: I found recent examples in The New Yorker (2012), The New York Times (2011), and The Guardian (2008)

In this success, essayette has fared better than an even earlier name for the short nonfiction work: notelet. This term first surfaced in the 1820s as a reference to a short message or communiqué, but Sara Coleridge, daughter of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, expanded its use in an 1832 letter:

My mind misgives me about some notelets that I have pencilled in J_s “Journal of Art.” Most of them are about facts in Natural History; but one is on the use of the word “Enthusiasm.”

The OED defines this sense as “a short annotation or written observation,” but labels it “rare.” That dictionary also lists a similar (and similarly doomed) sense of the word brief  — “a short statement or account of something that is, or might be, more fully treated” — with citations that begin in 1563, but end in 1691.

Around the time that this sense of brief was failing in its bid for wordhood, another new term for the short nonfiction piece was staking its own claim by way of metaphor. In 1668, the physician and natural philosopher Walter Charleton published a book titled, The Ephesian and Cimmerian Matrons: Two Notable Examples of the Power of Love & Wit. The book consisted of two essays: “The Ephesian Matron,” written by Charleton himself, and “The Cimmerian Matron,” written by an author we know only as “P. M., Gent.” In this second essay, our gentleman includes the following description of his work:

Whereof I have here drawn no perfect Picture, but only a rude Scetch.

You might think that the literary sense of sketch  — a brief description of a person, place, or event — is a metaphorical play on the artistic sense — a quick, freehand drawing — but the latter isn’t attested in English until 1682, 14 years after “The Cimmerian Matron.” The “freehand drawing” sense was very much alive in other languages, so “P. M.” likely based his metaphor on a foreign term that was “in the air,” most likely the Dutch word schets (pronounced, approximately, as “shketch”).

However it came into the language, sketch as the name for a particular literary form found a home, especially when in 1836 Charles Dickens published Sketches By “Boz.” This was a collection of his 2,500-word newspaper columns, most of which were depictions of the people, places, and incidents that Dickens encountered on his journeys around London. Both the columns and the book were hugely popular and launched not only Dickens’ literary career (a contract for The Pickwick Papers soon followed), but also the word sketch’s linguistic career as a shorthand reference to a brief, descriptive essay.

Some artistic sketches were quite tiny — the size of a thumb’s nail, in fact — and these miniatures, these thumbnails, as they came to be called, soon had a literary counterpart: the thumbnail, a very short “word picture” (a term coined around 1835) of a colorful character, a notable place, or a memorable adventure.

The artistic metaphor that breathed life into sketch (and thumbnail ) also inspired a similar mid-eighteenth century literary form: the pen portrait. Originally a pen-and-ink drawing of a person, by 1856, when the writer David W. Bartlett published Modern Agitators, or Pen Portraits of Living American Reformers, the term had come to refer also to a brief, informal description of a person or place. Several modern writers are famous for their pen portraits, including the historians Tony Judt and David Kynaston.

The advent of photography brought with it fresh metaphors for short nonfiction works. A vignette originally referred to a type of photographic portrait. The literary version, a short, evocative description of a person or place, entered the language as early as 1866 with the publication of Vignettes: Twelve Biographical Sketches, by one of the Victorian Age’s great feminists, Bessie Rayner Parkes. The modern sense of the word mostly refers to fictional poems and stories, with Canadian writer Margaret Atwood often hailed as the master of the form.

The word snapshot  — a quick photograph taken with a hand-held camera — feels thoroughly modern but, like the camera itself, is a nineteenth century invention. The earliest recorded use is from 1890, and the written equivalent — a short piece dashed off with a hand-held pen, if you will — arrived only a few years later. The literary snapshot is probably the first true example of what we now call flash nonfiction. A snapshot in this sense is an attempt to capture in prose a meaningful moment, a fleeting impression, a quicksilver thought. Marshall McLuhan, in The Gutenberg Galaxy, points to Montaigne as the original:

Montaigne, in his Essays, set out to snapshot his own mind in the act of reading and reflection by way of Ia peinture de la pensée.He bred up a great race of self-portrayers by means of the mental snapshot, of the sequence of the arrested and isolated moments of experience which anticipate the cinema.

The modern version of the snapshot is the one-moment memoir that attempts to render the beauty or significance of a moment in the writer’s life. Those with more time opt for the five-moment memoir that recalls several significant episodes from the day.

The “flash” of a snapshot piece (or a one-moment memoir) alludes to the sliver of time it depicts, but it can also refer to the piece itself. The early twentieth century was characterized by the “scientific management” theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor, where every task was timed to the second. That manic quest for efficiency also affected many reading advocates, resulting in a new term for the very short fiction or nonfiction piece: one-minute story. A 1907 print subscription service called The Youth’s Companion boasted that among the “attractions” of its forthcoming issues would be “two thousand one-minute stories, anecdotes, bits of humor — sketches which take not more than a minute to read.” One-minute stories are also sometimes called minute-longs, but a less exact term is smokelong, a literal translation of a Chinese term for pieces short enough to be read during a cigarette break.

More recently, the poet James Richardson has published numerous ten-second essays, aphoristic musings that pack an essayistic punch: “Think of all the smart people who are made stupid by flaws of character. The finest watch isn’t fine long when used as a hammer.” The term is most closely associated with Richardson, but teachers occasionally borrow the idea as a writing prompt.

Writers and readers have coined many names for brief pieces where the “brief” part refers to their length. The unlikely pioneer was a French critic and anarchist named Félix Fénéon. French newspapers of the early 1900s included a section called faits divers  — literally “various facts,” but best translated as “news Items”. These were short write-ups of unremarkable crimes, petty misdemeanours, and cat-stuck-in-a-tree non-stories. Cynical French journalists called them chiens écrasés (“run-over dogs”). These were dull space-fillers until Fénéon came along and wrote hundreds of them in 1906 for the Paris newspaper Le Matin. Eschewing the usual stultifying prose, Fénéon produced a series of miniature masterpieces:

Women suckling their infants argued the workers’ cause to the director of the streetcar lines in Toulon. He was unmoved.

Scheid, of Dunkirk, fired three times at his wife. Since he missed every shot, he decided to aim at his mother-in-law, and connected.

“If my candidate loses, I will kill myself,” M. Bellavoine, of Fresquienne, Seine-Inférieure, had declared. He killed himself.

Fénéon called these literary bonbons Nouvelles en Trois Lignes, “News in Three Lines,” and they gave rise to the term three-line story. A similar genre (at least in terms of length, if not subject matter) is the postcard essay (earliest use: 1947), a piece short enough to fit on the back of a standard postcard.

The young twentieth century, its newspaper and publishing industries thriving thanks to increased literacy and the everyday magic of the telegraph’s near-instantaneous communications, also introduced the word short for the brief nonfiction article. The earliest recorded use comes from a 1912 book, What the Judge Saw, by the English magistrate Edward Abbott Parry, who in an earlier life toiled as a journalist:

For many years I wrote dramatic criticism and reviewed books, and wrote “shorts” and occasionally full-dress leaders for the Manchester Guardian.

The even briefer piece — the short short  — first appears in the late 1920s, although exclusively as a reference to fiction: the short short story. The earliest use I could find for short short as a reference to nonfiction comes in a 1932 edition of The Editor (subtitled, “The Journal of Information for Literary Workers,” making it the Writer’s Market of its day):

Would it not be startling if someone ventured to predict that some day the magazines would feature only short shorts both in stories and in articles?

The August 24, 1945 issue of the Tucson Daily Citizen includes a classified ad on page 12 that reads, in part, “Nursery chair, baby shoes, never worn.” Besides being achingly poignant, this snippet also bears an uncanny resemblance to words attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” I say “attributed” because there is no proof, written or otherwise, that Hemingway actually penned those words. Not that it matters, since the story has by now been too widely disseminated, and is too perfect as a Hemingway anecdote, for a successful debunking. For our purposes, this legend spawned a number of related terms for equally compact tales, including six-word story, six-word memoir, and six-word essay, all of which first appeared in the 1990s.

If a short short were a physical object, how small would it be? Some say it would be pocket-sized, a term that we normally apply to books (the phrase pocket book goes all the way back to the early seventeenth century), but the monikers pocket-sized story and pocket-sized essay both date to around 1950. A similarly compact piece is also sometimes described as palm-sized. Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata named his collection of short stories and prose poems, Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.

The prefix mini-, which denotes something that is a small or reduced version of its kind, first appeared in 1936, but didn’t become lexically productive until the 1950s and 1960s. Rather than create yet another new term for the short nonfiction work, many writers took advantage of the built-in connotations of “shortness” that came with mini-. Thus were coined the mini-essay (1968), the mini-memoir (1971), the mini-treatise (1971), and the mini-article (1977).

The prefix micro- has an even smaller feel than mini-, so it’s often used for extremely short nonfiction prose. Micro-essay, which first appeared around 1971, is now one of the most common names given to super-short pieces. There are also specific variations, such as micro-memoir (1992) and micro-biography (1935), and the genre as a whole is sometimes called micro-prose (1989) or micro-nonfiction (2008). And, yes, the even teensier prefix nano- gets into the act as well — for example, nano-essay (2004) and nano-nonfiction (2003) — but we’ve entered a jurisdiction where the Law of Diminishing Returns is in full effect, so I’ll say no more on the prefix front.

Twitter’s built-in brevity makes it a natural place to find short nonfiction. Many of the genres mentioned here are tagged on Twitter using the appropriate hashtags, such as #MicroEssay, #ShortShort, and #OneMomentMemoir. Links to short nonfiction pieces are often tagged as #ShortRead (or #ShortReads). Tweets that are themselves exercises in short nonfiction are tagged as #cnftweet (“cnf” being short for “creative nonfiction”) or #sixwordstories.

In the 1988 collection Open Windows: Canadian Short Short Stories, the afterword includes the following text:

This collection of short short stories marks the advent of a new literary form in Canada — what the critics have variously called “quick fiction,” “flash fiction,” or “subway stories.”

This marks the earliest use of the term flash fiction that I could find, although the reference to “critics” means the term is even older. Of the many names that have been applied over the years to the very short fiction genre — including minute fiction, sudden fiction, skinny fiction, furious fiction, and fast fiction  — it’s flash fiction that has risen to the top of a very tall heap. We’ve seen that many of the names for short nonfiction pieces have mirrored their fiction counterparts, and flash nonfiction (earliest use: 2004) is no exception. It also mirrors flash fiction in being the most popular name for very short creative nonfiction pieces.

This 450-year history of short nonfiction nomenclature has taken us from notelet and essaykin to #cnftweet and flash fiction. We’ve seen dozens of terms along the way, and we bypassed many more: concise literary nonfiction, compressed nonfiction, lyric essay (when short), prose poem (when nonfiction), the casuals of The New Yorker, and standard miniature-writing categories such as anecdote, dispatch, epistle, and meditation. Why so many terms? More to the point: Why has something that is short by definition generated such a long list of names?

The appearance of many new words to name and describe some phenomenon is a signal of cultural resonance and significance. We name new ideas, tools, and behaviours reflexively, compulsively. It’s as though new things don’t quite exist until we name them. Minor innovations and off-the-wall concepts might be named only by their inventors, but major inventions and toast-of-the-town ideas often get multiple names from multiple people. If an idea is one that gets regularly rediscovered or reinvented, it accumulates more new names over time.

The many monikers of short nonfiction — and the long history of those names — tell us that it’s a writing genre that resonates. The recent boom in flash nonfiction is usually explained by a combination of our era’s characteristically short attention spans and chronically busy lives. If you can’t find the concentration or the time for 10,000 words, try 1,000, instead. Or 750. Or 6.

This is undoubtedly true, but it doesn’t explain why Seneca’s epistles were popular 2,000 years ago. It doesn’t explain why Montaigne’s Essays were a big hit in the sixteenth century (and beyond). It doesn’t explain the original and enduring appeal of Charles Dickens’s sketches and Félix Fénéon’s three-line stories. These nonfiction pieces enchant not despite their shortness, but because of it. As the poet James Tate (talking about the prose poem) said, “People generally do not run for cover when they are confronted with a paragraph or two. The paragraph says to them: I won’t take much of your time, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, I am not known to be arcane, obtuse, precious, or high-fallutin’. Come on in.” An essay is a long journey that requires packing a lunch or a suitcase. A micro-essay is an invigorating walk around the block after dinner.

But flash nonfiction isn’t merely short nonfiction. It packs a prose punch. It is dense. A great short piece is, to paraphrase William Blake, a grain of sand that contains a world, a wild flower that gives a glimpse of Heaven. A lyric essay makes the soul hum and the mind soar. It gives license to our imagination and comfort to our curiosity. Short nonfiction makes us feel alive and human. Call it what you will.

Of Gigs and Gags

In today’s Word Spy post — the gig economy — I use the word gig in a fairly new sense of the term: “a job, particularly a small task arranged using a website or app designed for the purpose.” This new sense is a slight variation on an older meaning that referred to any job, but especially one with a short or uncertain duration. The usual etymology is that this sense comes from the musical term gig, “an engagement to play music, particularly for just a single performance,” which dates to 1926, but the origins of that sense are unknown.

However, in the Random House Dictionary of American Slang, J. E. Lighter includes a sense of gig that he defines as a “business affair; state of affairs; (hence) undertaking or event,” with an earliest citation from 1907. He speculates that this might be an altered form of a sense of the word gag that means, “a variety of action or behavior; practice, business, method, etc,” which he dates to 1890. Perhaps (and I’m guessing here) that in turn was a more general usage of gag, “a prank, deception, or lie,” which likely comes from the sound that a person makes when choking.

So if the negative aspects of the gig economy — especially the idea that a rapidly growing segment of the population now lacks benefits, job stability, and worker protection — make you gag, that’s an appropriate reaction in more ways than one.

Sweet as Honey, Bright as the Full Moon

Today’s Word Spy post is uni-moon, a vacation that, because of scheduling conflicts and general too-busyness, each person in a newly married couple takes alone instead of going on a honeymoon together. It’s tempting to use the inherent absurdity of such a concept as a launching pad for a rant against modern lifestyles that are too hopped-up on hectivity and too wired by work-life overload to organize even a short vacation as a couple. You can find any number of such rants in other corners of the internets. Just ask Google. Instead, let’s take a quick look at the history of the word honeymoon. Won’t that be nicer?

Some folks would have you believe that the word honeymoon refers to some ancient custom that required the bride and groom to spend the first month (or, really, a full lunar cycle, or “moon”) drinking mead, an alcoholic drink made with honey. The very idea that your average newly minted man and wife could spend 27 days drunk as skunks should be enough to put the lie to this old chestnut.

Unfortunately, however, the real story is quite a bit more cynical. The deal is that at the beginning of a marriage, the bride and groom’s love for each other is as sweet as honey and burns as bright as the full moon. However, just as both our taste for honey and the full moon’s brightness eventually wane, so too will the couple’s love for each other.

Hmm, maybe that wasn’t nicer after all. Now about that rant…

“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.

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.