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.

3 responses to “dabchick

  1. Of interest may be the Wenglish phrases “Poor dab!” and “Lucky dab!” where ‘dab’ = ‘creature’. See http://talktidy.com/d.html for the lexicon of England as spoken by (many of) the Welsh.

  2. In North America, the word ‘dabchick’ is often used for the considerably larger pied-billed grebe Podilymbus podiceps. The least grebe Tachybaptus dominicus is mostly a Central American bird, but is found in Texas; there is a pleasing symmetry that the state that boasts the world’s largest just-about-anything should host the world’s smallest grebe.

    The original Old World dabchick T. ruficollis has the distinction of being the only grebe mentioned by Jane Austen, in Persuasion. While Louisa is recovering from concussion caused by her imprudent leap at Lyme Regis, Charles Hayter remarks of her, ‘If one happens only to shut the door a little hard, she starts and wriggles like a young dab chick upon the water.’ The wriggle can be seen at 0’11” in this clip, but what the tiny bird does after that is truly astonishing.

  3. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words

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