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shameless pleading

Pull in one’s horns / Dribs and drabs

Bit by bit.

Dear Word Detective: I am wondering about the derivation of two phrases my mother used to use. These go back a ways (she was born in 1911). The first is: “We have to pull in our horns,” meaning “we have to spend less money.” The second is “dribs and drabs,” meaning “small amounts of stuff.” — Bob Poulson, Tokyo.

Interesting question. Serendipitously, I happened to be reading “The Adventures of Sally,” a novel by P.G. Wodehouse, the other night on my little Nook e-reader. It was included in something called “50 Classic Humor Books” that I bought for $1.99 or so. I certainly got my money’s worth, because the whole shebang is apparently 9866 pages long (unless the page- number-thingy is wrong, which is entirely possible). The only reason I use a Nook, incidentally, is that my eyes are wonky, and the Nook lets me make the type big enough to be read from across the room. Anyway, the Sally of the title goes through numerous financial ups and downs, and, on page 604 (?), her sister-in-law, speaking of Sally’s brother Fillmore’s similar reversals, says, “Well, you know Fillmore, poor darling. Anyone else would have pulled in his horns and gone slow for a spell, but he’s one of those fellows whose horse is always going to win the next race.” Fillmore, it seems, has boldly squandered the last of his money on yet another bad bet. Unfortunately, Fillmore had borrowed that money from Sally, who is now suddenly broke.

To “pull in one’s horns” (or “draw in,” “shrink” or “pluck” them) is a remarkably old phrase, first found in print around 1400. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, it means “to restrain one’s ardor; to repress one’s pride; to lower one’s pretensions” as well as, more practically, “to restrict one’s expenditure, especially of money.” The freshly pauperized Sally, for instance, goes back to the dance hall job she had before becoming briefly wealthy. I’m going to assume, since this is Wodehouse, that there is a happy ending to this story, but at the moment things look rather grim.

“Pulling in one’s horns” is an odd phrase in part because most, if not all, animals possessing real horns (bulls, goats, etc.) cannot retract them. Horns are also generally considered weapons of a sort, making them a strange metaphor for calming down and pinching pennies. It turns out that we just need to broaden our definition of “horns.” The term “horn” has been applied at least since the 14th century to “hornlike” protuberances on the heads of many creatures lacking conventional horns, e.g., the antennae of insects and the tufts of feathers on an owl’s head.

In the case of “pull in one’s horns,” the critter is the common snail, and the “horns” are its two eye-stalks (technically “retractile tentacles”). When a snail is threatened or disturbed, its first (and pretty much only) defensive recourse is to “pull in its horns” and hide in its shell. As a metaphor for “withdrawing into modesty and/or thrifty behavior,” the snail’s behavior is a good fit. And the famous English passion for gardening would have made the average homeowner familiar with the behavior of snails.

“Dribs and drabs” has been used to mean “small and intermittent amounts” since the early 19th century (“Whether it be better to have a little [news] and often, or a great deal and seldom, I leave to your better judgment to determine. … You may have it in dribs and drabs if you like it better,” 1809).

“Drib” was first noticed as a Scots dialect word meaning “a drop or very small quantity” in the 18th century, and it’s related to the verb “to drib” meaning “to fall in small drops” or “to go or do something by small amounts.” Both words are clearly related to “dribble,” and the whole family of “dribs/dribble” is onomatopoeic, the words themselves intended to evoke a sense of something dribbling away. “Drab” as been used to mean “a small amount of money” since the early 19th century, but most often in the phrase “dribs and drabs.” It doesn’t seem to be related to any other sense of “drab” as a noun or adjective, and probably became popular largely through its “reduplicative” rhythm in the phrase “dribs and drabs.”

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