The story of ‘dob’

by Bruce Moore

Bruce Moore is a former director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre, who is currently editing the second edition of the Australian National DictionaryThe following is an extract from his book What’s their Story? A History of Australian Words (published by Oxford University Press Australia, 2010). 

what's their story image

What’s their Story? gives a detailed account of many of the iconic words in Australian English. 

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’: (2009) ‘A soldier who stole two cameras while he was working as a storeman at Robertson Barracks was only found out when his ex-wife dobbed him into the military police, a court has heard.’¹ 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)’: ‘I fear I’ve dobbed myself in to doing something silly. Yep, in my haste to help drought-stricken farmers I stuck my hand in the air and said I’d organise a team from my office to take part in the Paddo’s Beach Volleyball Charity Day on Sunday.’² As dob in it can also mean ‘to contribute money to a common cause’: (1956) ‘The whole town dobbed in and bought Charlie and Russ a new boat.’³ Finally, in Australian Rules football, dob can mean ‘to kick (the ball) long and accurately; to kick (a goal)’: ‘Mark Blake dobbed the ball deep into the Cats’ goal square and into the waiting arms of Chapman’;4 (2008) ‘But Lloyd dobbed a long goal.’5 Are all these meanings related?

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It has long been a taboo in Australian society to dob on people, especially on one’s mates, but more generally on anybody. This probably has something to do with the fact that any such dobbing in is usually to an ‘authority’, and therefore runs counter to the strong streak of anti-authoritarianism in the Australian psyche. It also runs counter to the notion of mateship and the fair go. From the verb comes the noun dobber ‘an informant; a tale teller’. A cobber dobber is a person who informs on a colleague. All such dobbing activities are profoundly un-Australian, and this helps to explain why the verb dob is one of the core Australian terms. Some have felt that in recent years there has been a slight shift in attitude towards dobbing, as expressed in this 2009 newspaper article:

It used to be considered un-Australian, but after years of turning a blind eye we’ve become a nation of dobbers. Australians have proven themselves to be world-class informers, pointing the finger at hundreds of people every day for alleged wrong-doing. Tax dodgers, welfare rorters, criminals, litterbugs and water wasters spurred almost 250,000 Australians to overcome a natural distaste for dobbing last financial year. … Monash University Australian history expert Professor Graeme Davison said the nation’s traditional abhorrence of dobbers stemmed from convict times. Most considered it on a par with being a scab or a pimp. ‘It was a kind of code of honour among mates. It was supposed to go as far as not dobbing people in even when they were in the wrong.’ But he said Australians today felt less bound by such social codes.6

There may have been a slight shift in attitudes, but the taboo against dobbing (in the sense ‘telling on’, ‘sneaking on’ people to the authorities) still resides deep within Australian society.

A game of marbles

A game of marbles

A possible clue to the origin of this major sense of dob, and also the other dobs, may lie in British dialect. It is a well established fact that many Australian words and meanings have their origin in British dialects, and there are certainly some potential dialectal meanings of dob. 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, including examples from Nottinghamshire (‘I dobbed my cap on to the butterfly’) and Kent (‘Dob down the money’). A second dialectal meaning of dob is ‘to throw stones etc. at a mark’, mainly from northern English dialects, and from Cornwall. Thus from Cornwall we have ‘He dobbed a great stone at me’.7 In Lincolnshire dob means ‘to hit’ or ‘a hit’.8 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”’.9 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’.10

Dobbing the ball. Source: westcosteagles.com.au

Dobbing the ball in Aussie Rules.  Source: westcosteagles.com.au

From this web of meanings we can discern an underlying notion of throwing something at a target, and this could account for Australian dob (in) in the sense of ‘informing on someone’ and ‘choosing someone for a task’. The sense of ‘contributing money’ might also derive from the notion of ‘throwing in’ (indeed, money is associated with a number of the senses outlined in the previous paragraph). There is another British verb dub in ‘to make a contribution’ (OED), and this might be the more immediate source (although ultimately the dub here may be the same word as dob and dab above). The Australian Rules football sense might also derive from the notion of throwing towards a target, although in this case there is probably some influence from the verb lob ‘to throw in a high arc’.

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. For example, in the Melbourne Argus newspaper in 1942 there is a series of comic articles dealing with wartime situations by Cole Turnley that use the phrase ‘my List of Blokes to be Dobbed’, where dobbed appears to have the sense ‘have a responsibility imposed upon’. The earliest dobbing of a ball is in 1939, and in golf rather than Australian Rules Football: ‘At the 36th he “dobbed” in a putt from off the edge of the green.’11 These examples from the later 1930s and 1940s are rare, and the solid evidence does not start to appear until the 1950s. 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.

 

Northern Territory News (Darwin), 13 November 2009, p. 10.

2  South West News (Brisbane), 20 November 2002, p. 21

3  E. Lambert, Watermen (London, 1956), p. 103.

4  Age (Melbourne), 20 September 2009, Sport Supplement, p. 7.

5  Sunday Times (Perth), 6 April 2008, p. 58.

6  Mercury (Hobart), 23 December 2009, p. 2.

7  J. Wright, English Dialect Dictionary (Oxford, 1898-1905), vol. 2, p. 100.

8  Wodds and Doggerybaw: A Lincolnshire Dialect Dictionary, ed. J. Sims-Kimbrey (Boston, Linc., 1995), p. 79.

9  English Dialect Dictionary, vol. 2, pp. 100–1.

10  English Dialect Dictionary, vol. 2, p. 1.

11  Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November 1939, p. 13.