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shameless pleading

Chibbles

He wasn’t there again today; I wish to hell he’d go away.

Dear Word Detective:  My mother sometimes used the word “chibbles” to refer to small bits of debris such as those that resulted from kids playing with scissors.  The debris that search engines have turned up suggest that this is a (relatively rare) regional usage (more often applied to cut-up food) but I still wonder.  Is there any relation to “kibble” (little bits of dry animal food)? — James

Funny you should ask.  I was just on my way out to buy dog and cat food.  I must remember to keep them straight this time.  A few months ago I somehow managed to put the dog kibble in the cat food bin and vice-versa.  The dogs were thrilled with the cat chow, but the cats were much less so with their new fare.  Obviously, somebody needs to invent a universal pet food, something that cats, dogs, fish, hamsters, parakeets and those weasel things (oh right, sorry, ferrets) will eat.  Bonus points if it’s palatable to humans as well.  My life would be far easier.

I’ve spent the past day or so looking into your question, and I have a suggestion:  pick a different question.  I’m no stranger to dead ends (I grew up on a dead-end street, in fact), but it seems that literally everywhere I go in search of “chibble” I hit an unsatisfying answer.  What I’ve been looking for, of course, is any use of “chibble” to mean “small pieces” or “bits of debris left over.”  Long story short, no dice, at least no such uses printed in a book or newspaper (rather than just being reported in an online forum or the like).

What I have found, however, is the use of “chibble” to mean “small onions” or “scallions,” a usage that dates back at least to the late 19th century here in the US.  The forms most often found in the US are “chibbol” or “chibal,” both of which are variations on an old English dialect word, “chibol,” meaning a kind of leek (a sort of cross between an onion and a proper leek).  This “chibol” dates back to the mid-14th century in English, and was apparently derived from the French “ciboule,” which itself was based on “cepa,” the Latin word for “onion.”  So what we have here is a word which sounds like your mother’s “chibble,” but means “small onions.”

Meanwhile, peeking under the hood of “kibble” isn’t much help.  As a noun meaning “coarsely ground grain or cereal,” it’s a fairly recent word, first appearing in the early 20th century.  Meaning “pellets of pet or animal food,” it’s even newer, dating back only to 1965.  These noun forms came from the verb “to kibble,” which appeared around 1790 meaning “to grind coarsely, to crush into small pieces.”  Unfortunately, no one knows where “kibble” came from or what its roots might possibly be.  Anybody see a pattern here?

My guess is that your mother’s use of “chibble” was, perhaps, a form of “chibbol” (small onion) expanded to mean “bits of food,” then “food debris,” and then further extended to mean “bits of any kind of debris.”  It is entirely possible that this mutation in meaning was partly driven by the similarity in sound of “chibbol” to “kibble,” but the words don’t seem to be actually related.  The fact that such a use isn’t documented in print doesn’t, of course, mean that your mother invented it or that she was the only person to use it.  Such uses often arise and exist under the radar of lexicographers for years, and may even fade away again without ever being noted.  Judging by the absence of this usage in print, I’d say this one is definitely on its way out.

11 comments to Chibbles

  • This is just wild speculation, the kind that fuels far-fetched word derivations, but could “chibbles” have been a misspelling or alternative spelling or even an earlier spelling of “kibbles”?

  • KarenK

    I had a teacher once who referred to such small debris as “shnibbles”, and I picked up the term from him.

  • The Holg

    “Shnibbles” reminds me of German “schnibbeln” or “schnippeln” (both variants exist), meaning “to cut” (especially quickly and/or finely) and probably related to English “snip”. “Shnibbles” might be derived from the German word, via Yiddish perhaps.

    A transition “shnibbles” – “shibbles” – “chibbles” wouldn’t seem too far-fetched to me.

  • The Holg

    Addition: “Schnippel” or “Schnipsel” as a noun can be a small, cut-off piece of anything, especially paper, in German.

  • meike

    Shnibbles seems to be a logical root to me in case James mom was influenced by German immigrants, bringing their native words into their new language.
    In German, the word “Schnippsel” or “Schnippel” is used for small leftovers that have been cut off (mostly used relating to paper = Papierschnippsel).

  • Rob

    The definition that your mother gave was always what I had heard for the term. I remember it being used quite a bit in that context when I was growing up in the Boston area in the 70′s and 80′s, so there was at least during that time a somewhat widespread usage of the term with the definition meaning “small tidbits or debris”.

  • My mother, born in 1903 in Columbus, Ohio, was an immaculate housekeeper and used “chibbles” referring to small bits of paper, fluff, or food spotted on the carpet. My sister and I continued its usage which is now carried on by my daughter in Spokane and daughter in New Orleans. They have passed it on to friends, so I don’t see its demise. It comes in handy! There is still a lot of small spillage!

  • Michael Tweed

    The word Chibble refers to the removing of small pieces of a material such as wood. If you were using a knife or chisel to reshape a piece of wood or similar material you would ‘chibble away’ until you had achieved your objective.

  • Barbara James

    Find this discussion fascinating – I come from a village in Devon, UK and one of our favourite summer teatime treats (in the 60′s/70′s) was a mixed salad served with chibbles – thinly sliced spring onions left to soak for a few hours in slightly diluted malt vinegar with a sprinkling of sugar. The fact that chibble seems to have meant a spring onion at some time in the US sort of completes a circle given that many folk from the West Country were among the early settlers in the US.

  • Russell Bragg

    Found in a 1987 academic paper by a Peter J. Scott, Dept. of Biology, Memorial University of Newfoundland (Canada) titled ‘COMMON NAMES OF PLANTS IN NEWFOUNDLAND’: “Chibbles and Chipps – Allium schoenoprasum L. [Chives]. In England, onions are called ‘Chibbals’ and in Devon a small onion is called a ‘Chipple’”, reference said to be taken from Britten, J., and R. Holland. 1886. A Dictionary of English Plant Names. Trubner & Co., London.

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