Monday, November 05, 2007

Smack Dab in the Middle

David/Beulah, MI: What does smack dab in the middle actually mean, and where did it come from?

In essence, the phrase means “slapped precisely in the center.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, smack-dab showed up in print in 1892: “He hit him smack dab in the mouth” [Dialect Notes I, 232].

The first element, smack, is used as an adverb. It is defined as “with, or as with, a smack; suddenly and violently; slap.” It appears in 1782 in Cowper’s John Gilpin: “Smack went the whip, round went the wheels.”

The second element, dab, means “with a dab or sudden contact.” Robert Armin’s Nest of Ninnies uses it in this sense in 1608: “He dropt heauy as if a leaden plummet... had fallen on the earth dab.”

A variation is slap-dab: “He was goin' that fas' he run slap-dab agin me afo' he seed me” [1886, Turf, Field & Farm XLII. 174/3].

Slap-bang is close, but it meant immediately rather than centered: “Slap-bang shop: a petty cook's shop where there is no credit given, but what is had must be paid down with the ready slap-bang, i.e. immediately” [1785, Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue].

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