How would you like to take a quick dip with a dabchick? Does that sound a little agreeable, or is it even in the least grievous? Would you have a bird, would it be a baptism of fire (“Stop, liquid, stop!”), or would you just duck out altogether?
Well, you would think a dabchick would be a dab hand at quick dips. After all, the dab here refers to dipping – or diving – quickly. Yes, it’s related to our verb dab, as well as to dip and deep. But when I’m talking about a dab chick, I’m not talking about a girl, let alone some dapper boychick; in fact, this chick is not even a truncated chicken (though chick is always a truncated chicken). Rather, it’s a little grebe.
OK, now, we’ve moved from a two-syllable word with a certain charm – the light and lively connotations of dab (not just dab hand but all those dabs of colour) and its cheerful bookends d and b, plus the slick check-and-click of chick to sharpen the sound after the voiced stops – to a one-syllable word that might not seem so agreeable. The various gr words it brings to mind are not invariably pretty: grab, grub, grip, grim, greed; green can be OK, and greet is meet, but their final consonants differ from /b/ in two features (place and manner), not just one, so they’re a little farther to swim.
But do you know what a grebe is? It’s a swimming bird, rather like a duck (but the dabchick has a pointed bill and a “powder puff” posterior). There are various kinds of grebes, all the way from the least grebe (120 grams, 23.5 centimetres) to the great grebe (1.7 kg and 71 cm – good grief). The dabchick is a kind of grebe also known as the little grebe, a name which has its own pretty patterns (the various parallel lines in little with liquid-stop-liquid, and then the repeated e’s of grebe with stop-liquid-stop).
Dabchicks aren’t much for running; their legs are too far back. But they, along with a few other small grebes (including the least grebe), are such sudden dippers that they make up the genus Tachybaptus. That’s from the Greek for “quick diver” – yes, that’s the same root you see in baptism, but this bird is no holy diver; its sudden ducks would make for a tacky baptism indeed, what with a fish in the mouth on resurfacing.
This is not to say that these wee birds say fishy things. If the little grebe has been a little piggy in its eating, or even if it hasn’t, it will be heard to say “wee-wee-wee” all the way home (or to another dabchick’s home; it’s a mating call). Which reminds me that there’s another bird called a dabchick, the New Zealand dabchick, a.k.a. the weweia.
Oh, and Dabchick happens to be a nickname for residents of Aldbourne, Wiltshire, England. There are various stories to account for this. But as I am only dabbling lightly in this tangent, I will leave it to you to check them out for yourself. Or perhaps one of the readers of Sesquiotica will add a comment with context – they may not all be dabchicks, but they are dab hands and quick dippers into the lexis.