Glossary Supplement: screaming abdabs

(worldwidewords.org) Michael Quinion:

"To give someone the screaming abdabs (or habdabs) is a British expression for inducing an attack of extreme anxiety or irritation in someone. It's recorded in print from the middle 1940s.

There are few certainties about its origin. Eric Partridge, in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, says that the screaming abdabs was a late 1930s expression for an attack of delirium tremens, but he doesn't provide any evidence and that sense is otherwise unrecorded. He also claims that two phrases existed: 'don't give me the old abdabs' and 'don't come the old abdabs with me'. Both were warnings not to try to fool somebody or tell some fictitious story to excuse an action, which he records as services' slang from WWII. The modern British meaning is presumably a softening of the idea of delirium tremens. The version with the added h on the front looks like a hypercorrection, in which users assume an uncultivated speaker must be dropping his hs.

Jonathon Green, in the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, suggests the word could imitate the stuttering noise that somebody might produce when in a state of funk or incoherent frustration.

Until Gordon Paterson e-mailed me from Richmond, Virginia [...], I hadnít considered that it might also be an American usage. However, he remarked that "In my homeland of Dixie (aka the southern USA), the term abba-dabba is a common one with strong negative overtones denoting persons of such limited capacities that they are unable to properly form words". That sent me to the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang; its compiler Jonathon Lighter doesn't mention that sense, but says it's an American slang term for dessert (Eric Partridge also mentions this as a subsidiary meaning) with just one example, from 1961. [...]

The link between meaningless monkey chatter and the sense Mr Paterson gives is obvious enough. It's possible to imagine it giving rise to a meaning of delirium tremens through a mechanism such as Jonathon Green proposes. But how it came to mean dessert defeats me completely."



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