Sunday, November 01, 2015

Dribs & Drips

Traverse City Record-Eagle headline: Shipwrecks pose threat to U.S. waters
[Nov 1, 2015, 3b]

”Past leaks have shown that the oil usually comes out in drips and drabs rather than gushes, lessening the worry of a full-scale catastrophe and the need for urgent action in most cases.” (AP)

The clichéd doublet isn’t used all that much, so it’s not surprising that it was modified in this article in an attempt to make it sound a bit more logical. However, the phrase is actually dribs and drabs, and the first written instance in the Oxford English Dictionary dates to 1809: “Whether it be better to have a little [news] and often, or a great deal and seldom, I leave to your better judgment to determine... You may have it in dribs and drabs if you like it better.  [E. Weeton Let. 17 Mar. in Jrnl. of Governess (1969) I. 158]

The OED defines a drib as a drop or an inconsiderable quantity of something; the word dribble is related. A drab was a small or petty sum of money. Pairing the two was redundant, but reduplication (as in bits and pieces) is often seen as attractively ear-catching.

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