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`FIRST DIBS' MAY HAVE ROOTS IN AN OLD CHILDREN'S GAME

Question: Recently I heard my son tell his brother that he had "first dibs" on the television. I remember this phrase from my own childhood, but I wonder: What exactly is a dib? Where does the word come from?

Answer: As you probably recall, to say that you have dibs on something is to claim or declare rights to that thing. "Dibs" in this sense was being discussed as children's slang as far back as the 1930s. By the 1950s, it had made its way into the more formal writing of some adult users of English, though even today "dibs" remains more prevalent among the young.

The term is derived from an old children's game called "dib- stones." Dibstones, or dibs for short, has had many different incarnations over the years, some of which date back to the 17th century. In most versions it closely resembled the game of jacks, often involving tossing up small objects and catching them on the backs of the hands. Other forms of dib- stones were similar to what we generally consider to be the game of marbles.

It is not absolutely clear, however, exactly how "dibs" acquired its sense of "claim" from the game of dibstones. We do know that, in whatever form it took, dibstones almost always centered on the manipulation of small objects, themselves called "dibstones" or "dibs." These dibs could be anything from pebbles to the small knucklebones of a sheep. It is likely that manipulating dibs in a particular way entitled a player to certain privileges according to the rules of the game. One source suggests that "dibs" was influenced by "dubs," an exclamation used in the game of marbles to declare one's right to marbles knocked outside the ring of play. If "dibs" came to be used in a similar way, it is possible that its meaning broadened over time to convey the more general sense of "rights" or "claim" that it possesses today.

Question: Can you tell me the origin of the phrase "den of iniquity"?

Answer: The phrase "den of iniquity" is used to denote a place of immoral behavior, often of a sexual nature. Its use in this way is a relatively recent development, but the roots of the phrase go back to the New Testament.

In both Mark and Matthew, Jesus condemns those who have been using the sacred temple as a marketplace, proclaiming that they have "made it a den of thieves." The word "iniquity" appears numerous times in the Bible with the meaning of "injustice" or "sin." To this day, writers use the word "den" to mean a place where iniquitous activities are carried out.

Despite all this, the exact idiom "den of iniquity" did not appear in written English until the 20th century. The song "In our Little Den of Iniquity" from the 1950s musical "Pal Joey" is an early example. There it denotes a secret hideaway for romantic rendezvous. Used more solemnly, the expression "den of iniquity" implies a certain seaminess that a morally upright individual would consider intolerable.

Question: Years ago when I was a child we used to sing a ditty that went "old man Moses kicked the bucket and old man Moses is dead." What does "kicked the bucket" have to do with death?

Answer: The saying "kick the bucket" has long been used to mean "die," usually in darkly humorous and sometimes disrespectful contexts. The phrase was first recorded in this sense in the 18th century. Several explanations have been advanced for its origin.

At one time, pigs to be slaughtered were hung by their hind legs upon a hook in a bent piece of wood; the word "bucket" might refer to this piece of wood and "kick" to the struggling movements made by the pig. Or the expression might refer to the act of kicking the bucket out from beneath a person being hanged. Another explanation holds that the "bucket" in the phrase is the container of holy water once customarily placed at the feet of a corpse during the Catholic funeral Mass so that mourners could sprinkle it upon the deceased as they passed.

Unfortunately, none of these theories can be substantiated, and the mystery of the origin of "kick the bucket" remains unsolved.