Nibbling Away

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 3.43.25 PMWhat’s a nibble?

You’d know the answer — or at least one answer — if you’d had the good fortune to attend the combined conferences of the Dictionary Society of North America and Studies in the History of the English Language this month, at the University of British Columbia. The first morning’s schedule specified, at 10 a.m., a Coffee & Tea Break With Nibbles. And those Nibbles turned out to be … various sweet rolls and breads.

In other words, a Nibble (at least this kind) is one possible answer to Question H5, asked 50 years ago by fieldworkers for the Dictionary of American Regional English: “What do you call a small amount of food eaten between regular meals?”

DARE didn’t venture into Canada, so we don’t know if nibble is a common Vancouverian or Canadian word, but the fieldworkers did visit all 50 U.S. states. So we know that three individuals in the U.S. answered Question H5 with nibbles: one in Texas, one in Indiana, one in Wisconsin. Maybe one of them later moved to Vancouver.

The question also elicited four examples of nibble: one in Minnesota, one in Pennsylvania, one in Tennessee, one in Alabama. The responses for both nibbles and nibble were too scattered to merit a regional label in DARE.

Not so the related word nibbling. DARE fieldworkers collected three examples of nibbling: two from Florida and one from New York. DARE‘s entry for nibbling includes five additional instances from other dialect surveys, enough for the editors to characterize the word as “especially Gulf States.”

We can imagine a Floridian, eager for mountains and a mild climate, emigrating to Vancouver and bringing nibblings along. Or maybe not.

So much for nibble. But this is only part of the information DARE provides with regard to “a small amount of food eaten between regular meals.” The sixth volume of DARE and the online version available (for a fee; get your library to subscribe) at list all of the answers to each question. And the online version automatically maps them.

Here’s a bit of what the other responses to H5 tell us.

Not surprisingly, the most frequent answer was snack (843 responses), and it’s found everywhere, though it is said to have been originally a Southern term. The next most common, with 174 responses, was lunch, showing up especially in the Midwest and Northeast. DARE also tells us the social distribution of those who gave each response, so we learn that lunch was more likely to be used by older rural males.

Still, lunch is widespread enough that DARE doesn’t give it a regional label. The next most frequent, however, piece, with 40 responses, does pattern regionally, labeled by DARE as North Midlands and West, and as old-fashioned. The related word piecing has a similar distribution.

As is typical of the answers to most of DARE‘s questions, there were a few predominant answers and many infrequent ones — nearly 60 different responses all told, including two dozen single instances, including afternoon tea and forbidden food and fat on your middle.

Between the conferences’ Nibbles, other matters of lexicography and language were considered as well in Vancouver. I’ll tell about a few of them in coming weeks.

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