‘Dibs’: the Great Northern Parking Tradition

Say the magic word, and it’s yours.

Please? No, not please. The magic word that truly cements ownership, at least for a lot of us, is dibs.

If you’re not familiar with dibs, you can look it up. For this word, the grand new Dictionary of American Regional English has first dibs for lookup. There we find dibs (always plural) defined as “a claim; rights; right of priority—often used as exclamation.” And DARE presents examples of use going back to 1930 in South Carolina. Likewise,  the Historical Dictionary of American Slang defines dibs as “a first claim on an item,” giving examples as far back as 1932. The dictionaries find examples in Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Kansas, Michigan, New Jersey, Nevada, and New York City, where a schoolchild is quoted as saying in 1956, “I got dibs! Dibs on that!”

As the HDAS notes, dibs is especially used by juveniles. But these days it has developed a grownup use too, one that appears only at this time of year. This usage emerges from its summer estivation (the opposite of winter hibernation) on those days when blizzards attack the great cities of the Northeast, among them Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Boston.

When a deep blanket of snow covers Chicago, as it did this past weekend, the traffic lanes of streets get plowed free of snow, but the cars parked by the curb do not. It’s up to the owners to shovel their cars out. Once they do, and once they take their cars on errands, they leave behind a beautiful parking space for someone who didn’t have to lift a finger.

How can the shovelers keep the cleared spaces for their own use? Dibs.

For the recent 18-inch snowfall, the Chicago Dibs Tumbler website shows photos of cleared spaces occupied by all sorts of chairs, a floor lamp, a walker, a mop, tables, buckets, and a pumpkin, among other objects. Boston has had its big snow too, with examples of space holders including a toy convertible.

Dibs on parking spaces are not legal. They are resented by some as much as they are embraced by others. Various unofficial rules have developed, for example that dibs expire 48 hours after the end of the snowfall—or maybe when the snow has melted. The rules are debated too.

The practice has been around in Chicago at least since 1967, and it hasn’t always been called dibs. The Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass may have been the first to use that term for cleared parking spaces, no earlier than 1999, but that’s just conjecture by fellow columnist Eric Zorn, as explained in a long piece in the Straight Dope Chicago website.

But dibs it certainly is now, the great winter sport of the frozen urban North.

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