The Story of “Dob.”

Bruce Moore (a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, currently editing the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary) discusses the meanings and history of the Australian slang verb dob in an extract from his book What’s their Story? A History of Australian Words (Oxford University Press Australia, 2010), quoted in this Ozwords post:

The verb dob has a range of meanings in Australian English. The most common meaning (often in the form dob in, dob into, or dob on) is ‘to inform upon, to incriminate’ … It can also (and less commonly) mean ‘to impose a responsibility upon (often a matter of getting someone to do an unpopular or difficult task)’ … As dob in it can also mean ‘to contribute money to a common cause’ … Finally, in Australian Rules football, dob can mean ‘to kick (the ball) long and accurately; to kick (a goal)’ … Are all these meanings related?

A possible clue to the origin of this major sense of dob, and also the other dobs, may lie in British dialect. … In fact, most dictionaries trace the Australian dobs back to these British dialect dobs. There, we find the verb dob meaning ‘to put down an article heavily or clumsily; to throw down’, with widespread dialectal usage… A second dialectal meaning of dob is ‘to throw stones etc. at a mark’, mainly from northern English dialects, and from Cornwall. … In Lincolnshire dob means ‘to hit’ or ‘a hit’. The underlying notion of throwing and hitting is evident in some marble games. In Cheshire the verb dob means ‘to throw a piece of slate, or other flat missile, at marbles placed in a ring at a distance of about six or seven feet from the player’, and in Northamptonshire ‘When one boy strikes another boy’s marble, without his marble first touching the ground, he is said to dob on it’. A dobber in British dialect is ‘a large, heavy marble’ and a dob-taw is ‘a large marble, a “lobber”’. In most of these uses the dialect dob is synonymous with the more familiar dab, and with some of that word’s dialectal uses—for example, a dab can be ‘an amount of money’, and to dab down means ‘to put a thing down quickly’ and figuratively ‘to pay down ready money’.

This is clearly a very complex etymology. The problem with what is outlined here is that those Australian words and meanings, which we are certain have their origin in British dialect, appear during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the influence of dialectal words on Australian English was at its greatest. The Australian dob and its variants are first recorded much later then this. … On these grounds we must conclude that the origin remains uncertain, although the clues provided in the dialectal material certainly provide some very likely origins.

An admirable example of how the nitty-gritty of etymology is carried on; see the link for citations, references, and further speculation.


  1. When I was a child in South Yorkshire, UK, in the 1990s dob in was used for ‘to inform upon, to incriminate’. I assume it’s still in use.

  2. This is Languagehat post #5151,a clean-limbed fighting integer. More pie, please!

  3. Talking of regional words appearing in unlikely places, it strikes to me than Boontling deek ‘look, notice’ must have something to do with Geordie and popular Edinburgh English deek (same meaning, ultimately from Romani).

  4. In Australian slang “have a decko” means “have a Captain Cook”, er I mean “have a look”. It could come from Romani or it could come from Hindi via British Army slang. There are other examples of Hindi words or phrases that came into English via the British Army. I believe there was a previous discussion of “tickety-boo”. Romani and Hindi have a common origin way back, so it could be a challenge to work out the exact route that a particular term came into English.

  5. Members of this word family have got into English twice: from Romani into some norteastern English and southeastern Scottish (deek v.), and from Hindi (or one of its close relatives in India) via army slang (dekko ~ decko ~ deko ~ deck n.).

  6. P.S. I forgot to add that the Hindi root dekh- (Romani dikh-) comes (via Skt. dṛś-, dṛkṣ-) from the well-known PIE root *derḱ- ‘watch, see’. I can’t think of a directly inherited cognate in Modern English (as for loanwords, dragon is one, from Greek via Latin and Old French), but Old English torht ‘bright, splendid’, an exact cognate of Skt. dṛṣṭa- ‘seen, visible’, would qualify.

  7. Indeed, the AHD4 doesn’t list any, but in addition to dragon, dragoon, drake, there are the borrowings rankle, which lost its /d/ somewhere in France, and tarragon (which took a side trip through Arabic and Persian. Its Linnaean name is Artemisia dracunculus, though I do not see what is particularly dragon-like about it; it’s one of my favorite herbs, and I use it liberally.

    I have always thought that when Beckett translated En attendant Godot into English, he should have changed his characters’ nicknames from the French-style Didi and Gogo to English-style Vladdy and Tarry (pronounced like the verb, not the adjective, of course).

  8. The number 5151 can’t possibly be an integer: it’s obviously 51 x 101, which means it’s also 3 x 17 x 101, and possibly other things.

  9. You’re confusing “integer” (whole number) with “prime” (indivisible number), which I think is a not uncommon error.

  10. Whoops, indeed I did. So what’s so special about 5151 if it’s not a prime? Reduplication?

  11. For that answer, we’ll have to appeal to JC.

  12. J. W. Brewer says

    I was confused by the notion that it was a “fighting” integer. 54-40 or Fight, I know (possible Pacific Northwest/BC theme for the upcoming post #5440?), but I don’t remember any aspect of number theory that subdivides the integers into bellicose and pacifistic subsets.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Interestingly, tarragon is Estragon in German and French. To make sure I had remembered that right, I looked it up. According to the Pffft! allen Wissens, it’s from Arabic طرخوم‎ / ṭarḫūn, and “dragon” is implied to be a later folk etymology; the French version, however, mentions “l’arabe tarkhum (petit dragon)”. Where the es- comes from seems to be completely unknown.

  14. Estragon in German and French

    Exactly, and so while Beckett’s character Estragon is called Gogo in French, a corresponding nickname in English would be Tarry.

    it’s from Arabic

    Etymonline says the Arabic form is borrowed too, possibly from Greek (but possibly not).

    There’s nothing really special about the integer 5151, except that here we are, and I just reread post #5000 (linke above at “pie”). The point about reduplication is a good one, though. “A clean-limbed fighting man” is a recurring phrase from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars series.

  15. There’s nothing really special about the integer 5151

    It’s the sum of the natural numbers from 1 to 101, which makes it mildly special.

  16. Interesting, gotta love etymology and etymologists, therefore: could you please correct “much later then this”?

  17. There is an interesting collection of translations of the Russian word ябеда-корябеда at

    The English translations include: cobber dobber, tattle-tale, dirty tell-tale, sneaky-pants, tittle tat, snitch-witch, and rat-fink.

    When I was a kid, little kids would use ‘tittle tat’, older kids might use ‘dobber’.

    Adults would admonish small children not to ‘tell tales’, other children would chant ‘Tittle tat, dirty rat, sitting on a doormat’.

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