Q&A: Bags, dibs and calling shotgun

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we bags calling dibs on shotgun…

Q: Hi AWC, my local store has stopped using plastic bags, and it got me thinking…

A: About the environment and the planet?

Q: No, silly. About words.

A: Right, okay. What in particular?

Q: Why do we say “I bags that” if we want to claim something? Or “bags not me” to exclude yourself? What do bags have to do with it?

A: This is a great topic. “Bags” is very British in its origins, and displays very verb-like tendencies. That is, you can say “I bags the first turn” or “she’s already bagsed it”. A variation was “bagsy” (from a more formal “bags I”) – where someone “bagsied the first turn” and so on. Typically used by school children and immature adults.

Q: Why ‘bags’ at all?

A: Oxford English Dictionary points to it popping up in 1914 – school slang that related to claiming something and adding it to one’s bag. We still say things today such as “bagging a few trophies” in regards to collecting, winning or even stealing. And hunters might bag a wild animal.

Q: And if you didn’t want something, it was “bags not”?

A: Certainly, although others cite the use of “Vain I” or “fainties” (or variations on this) – e.g. “Vain I doing the dishes” when you didn’t want to do something. That’s fairly extinct today though.

Q: There must be other “bags” equivalents too, yes?

A: Absolutely. Here in Australia, people often used “bars” instead – “bars the first turn on the monkey bars” or “bars sitting at the bar at the milk bar!” and so on. There also seems to have been a localised use of “hosie/hosey” as a similar verb in northeast US. So you would have said “I hosey the last slice of banoffee pie” etc.

Q: Never heard of that one. But you haven’t mentioned the big one, right?

A: Indeed. You’re talking about “dibs” or “dibbs”?

Q: Yes.

A: To “call dibs” on something is basically the North American equivalent to “bagsing” something. Of course, they are unlikely to have ever heard of “bagsing” whereas most young people in the world are familiar with “dibs” – including in Australia.

Q: Where does the word “dibs” come from?

A: It can be traced back to a 17th century children’s game called “dibstones” – similar to the modern game of “knucklebones” or “jacks”. The term “calling dibs” is at least as old as “bags”.

Q: So, can you “dibs” something?

A: This is the other difference. Unlike “bags”, it doesn’t really act like a verb. It’s more of a noun – asking that you “call dibs” similar to calling “mine!”. Although you can probably just blurt out “dibs!” in the right context.

Q: Such as in a Mexican standoff over the last slice of banoffee pie?

A: Exactly.

Q: So what about “calling shotgun” – is that the same?

A: Again, another term originating in North America. But it’s typically reserved for claiming the front passenger seat of a car. So if you and your friends were heading out for a ride, you might call “shotgun” to claim first rights to the front seat. Neil Armstrong famously called “shotgun” on Apollo 11 so he’d be first on the moon.

Q: Really?

A: Well no, but it is true that when you spell “Neil A” backwards, you get…

Q: …. Whoa!

A: Yep. Further proof it was all a conspiracy…

Q: Huh? Okay, anyway, back to the topic. So you’re saying you can’t call shotgun on a slice of pie?

A: Traditionally, no. But there is something happening lately, especially in Canada where it is being used in a more universal way, similar to “dibs”. The language is always evolving.

Q: Yes, some days grasping English is like herding cats.

A: Indeed.

Q: Well, here comes the end of the column. I bags getting the last word this week!

A: No, sorry, we called dibs on that already…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!


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