Saturday, June 13, 2009

Bits and Bobs

Perhaps I should not have gone quite so far into the question of manavalums, manavilins, etc., as I did last weekend, because seven days on I suddenly find myself wondering also about bits and bobs.

To some extent, any search for the meaning of this appealing phrase is redundant because it is amply self-explanatory. However, locating its origin is quite another matter.

Bits and bobs makes it into the Oxford English Dictionary under the second entry for bit, n., 3. b., viz. “bits and bats (or bobs, pieces),” meaning “fragments, oddments, odds and ends; small articles, personal belongings, bric-à-brac,” which, when you think about it, doesn’t exclude very much at all.

Bat, here, seems to be used in its second, separately documented sense (II. 7), i.e. “lump, piece, or bit,” though this is carefully described as obsolete—and I have never myself heard anyone talking about bits and bats lying around the house.

According to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, bits and bobs is English Midlands dialect, while Partridge defines it as “miscellaneous small articles” (U.K., 1896), both of which appear to be drawing upon A Warwickshire Word-Book, which was compiled by G. F. Northall and published for the English Dialect Society in 1896. Perhaps they might have acknowledged their source in the conventional manner, but I am glad to do so here on their behalf.

Interestingly, bits and bobs now crops up in the New Zealand Oxford Dictionary under bit as “bits and pieces (or bobs), an assortment of small items,” though it does not yet make any kind of walk-on appearance in the Australian National Dictionary.

I doubt if bits and bobs relates in any way to bobsy-die, n., a New Zealand colloquialism that means “a fuss” (i.e. to kick up bobsy-die), and in any case this seems to come directly from the late Regency formation Bob’s-a-dying, meaning a drunken revel (among sailors, as usual), which prompted two forlorn requests for information addressed to Notes and Queries in 1885 (from a correspondent who heard it often used in Kent) and 1910 (from another in East Cornwall), but only one answer (March 26, 1910), viz. that the expression was to be found in the English Dialect Dictionary, together with the variants bob’s-a-dial and bob’s-a-dilo; that these were recorded in Northumberland, Yorkshire, Dorset, and Devon, and that while they all meant “a great row or racket; boisterous merriment,” their origins were sadly obscure.

Turning back to the relevant articles about bit and bat in the same English Dialect Dictionary, intriguingly we find under bit, 1., “a morsel of food,” the variant phrases “bit and baid,” (1768); “bits and brats,” (i.e. food and clothing) (1843); “bit and buffet,” (i.e. food and blows) (1811); “bit and crimp [crumb],” (1863); “bit and drop or drap,” (1821), and “bit and sup,” (1863). Only under bit, 8., meanwhile, do we eventually come kicking and screaming via bits and bats to the playfully hyphenated bits-and-bobs.

In any case, there are plentiful instances of stray and unhyphenated bits and bobs throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, though very few before 1840 and as far as I can see none at all before 1813, when the phrase elbows its cheerful way into a letter addressed by a bucolic manservant to the Reverend Mr. William Mendall in The Miser Married: A Novel, by Catherine Hutton. This concludes:

I has bin a riteing this pissel at bits and bobs, jest has I cud gitt time; for the minnitt I has anserred mastrs bell, in coms missis stable, or som otther o the ladys, to hacks me to quord a bocks, or tigh up a bundhill; for yo nos I be jack of all treads. And so, as mississ horton do sy, ovur her drinck, my the singhell be morrid, and the morrid be hapy; wich is hall at prisont frum

Yors to com and


It helps to read this aloud, but I am not sure that it offers much hope of recovering any kind of viable etymology, since the phrase bits and bobs here seems to be used more squarely as an adverbial qualifier than as a descriptor of small-scale stuff. However, let us be patient, vigilant, and not give up hope of finding a plausible, even satisfactory answer.

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