Kinda like bacon fat, but without the dogs chasing you down the street.

Dear Word Detective: Because I have nothing better to do, I am stuck wondering at the word “dab,” as in “She is a dab hand at sitting around and doing nothing all day.” Does it have anything to do with “dab” as in “a small amount”? — KT.

Good question, and thanks for the trip down memory lane. For those of a certain age and an unruly mind, the mere mention of “dab” meaning “a small amount” will spawn a full mental rendition, complete with orchestration, of the old Brylcreem ad jingle (“Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya, Use more, only if you dare, But watch out, The gals will all pursue ya, They’ll love to put their fingers through your hair”). Brylcreem was (and, terrifyingly, apparently still is), a men’s hair styling product made of mineral oil and beeswax. As a small kid, I knew the stuff was popular, but I could not imagine why anyone would want to touch Brycreemed hair. Eww.

“Dab” is one weird little word. Actually, it’s two weird little words which may or may not be related. “Dab” first appeared around 1300 as both a noun and a verb, pretty much ex nihilo, as we say, having had no clear antecedents in English. (It may be related to the Middle Dutch “dabben,” meaning “to knead, pinch,” but there’s no real evidence of a connection.) The original meaning of the verb “to dab” was “to strike lightly or peck,” as a bird might. By the 16th century, this had developed into “to strike, pat or push with a soft, momentary pressure,” as one might “dab” paint onto a surface. (The sense here is similar to that of the unrelated verb “to daub.”) As a noun, “dab” came to mean the small, usually soft bit of some substance (paint, blood, hair grease, etc.) left by the action of “dabbing.” Our English verb “to dabble,” meaning to engage in an activity or interest without serious intent, originally meant “to splash or dab with water,” as children do splashing in puddles.

The use of “dab” you’re asking about is much more recent, first appearing as a noun in the late 17th century meaning “one skillful at” or “an expert in” (“[Love is] such a Dab at his Bow and Arrows,” 1691). The specific form “dab hand,” meaning “someone who is an expert in or proficient at something,” first appeared in the 19th century (“He was a dab hand at water-colours,” 1870). It appeared in many dialect dictionaries in Britain during the 19th century.

Unfortunately, the roots of this “dab” are a complete mystery, so opaque that we don’t know whether it’s even related to “dab” in the “small amount” sense. When this “dab” first appeared it was often described as “school slang,” which, if true, could mean that it either was invented out of thin air or is a heavily modified form of some other word. “Adept” and “dapper” (meaning “neat, trim, smart in appearance”) have been suggested as possible sources. Given the phonetic resemblance between “dab” and “dapper,” I’d vote for “dapper” as a source, but it’s always possible that the other “dab,” the “small amount” sort, was in some way the inspiration. But at this late date we may never find a definitive answer.

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