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The term "to have dibs on something" or "to call dibs on something" plays a recurring role in American film and television (e.g. How I Met Your Mother), so it gets exported a lot.

Wikipedia describes "dibs" as

[...] a common, "informal" convention to reserve or declare full or partial ownership of a community resource, such as a chair [...]

From the usages in the media I have seen, this convention also seems to contain some moral concept which is not described in dictionaries. For me, it looks like by calling dibs (or shotgun), the caller actually receives the (implicit, moral) right to that resource, and this typically goes undisputed by their rivals.

Can you confirm the existence of this concept? Is this something that varies between groups of people (or maybe between regions), or is there a concensus on how to respond to this?

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It depends on the dynamics within the group hierarchy. In some groups, a higher-status person can overrule a lower-status person without social cost. Tried the other way, the lower-status person can incur significant social cost or opprobrium. But this varies widely. –  Robusto Sep 29 '11 at 13:56
Replying to the above comment, when the higher-status person overrides, usually they invent some sort of reason as justification to avoid looking bad. –  Aaron Mahan May 24 at 19:04

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

I don't see a contradiction (or even much of a difference) between the Wikipedia explanation and your observation.

Though it is a casual practice that wouldn't hold up in a courtroom, calling dibs in the US is common and, within groups of friends/peers, largely accepted. I don't think it's so much an issue of having a "moral right" to something as being a sort of verbal equivalent of "first come, first served."

It's much more common among younger people (and most common among children). The younger the age group, the more binding the "contract."

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Thanks for your answer! I tend to see a difference between the concept of "dibs" existing in English and its equivalent in other cultures. Consider the German "Erster!"/"Meins!" ("first"/"mine"): If someone calls dibs in an English-speaking group, this request seems to be universally accepted and honored by the caller's peers, whereas calling "Meins!" in a German group gets disputed a lot more. (On afterthought, this might also be because of the Germans ;) ) –  Jan Sep 29 '11 at 13:22
hehe. I know as a kid I'd periodically counter my brother's "Dibs!" with "But you had it last time!" -- so my answer was not meant to imply the process is always conflict-free. :) –  onomatomaniak Sep 29 '11 at 13:36
Usually it involves reserving something in the short term; i.e., the same day, although more frequently, almost immediately, since no one would remember (or likely honor) the call after that time. The point is to prevent someone in a social group who may physically have access to the object of reservation before the reserver from possessing it. In a way, it is vetoing the idea of "first come, first served" because it's essentially saying, "even if you arrive first, it's still mine". Otherwise, there wouldn't be a need to call dibs (when the would-be reserver is already the "first come"). –  Aaron Mahan May 24 at 19:05

In American culture, and possibly elsewhere where "dibs" or a word based on the same concept is used, the idea is one of mutual respect for one's claim to some item, position, etc. The adoption of this concept likely originates in childhood interaction, where parents are encouraging respect for other's things, and children, always seeking out fun ways of applying what they are learning, adopt ideas such as "dibs" to express "I would like to claim this, so please respect my right to it."

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The general idea is that the person is getting in the first request on whatever it is. There's nothing especially moral about it, other that the "diber" clearly made a request, and if it isn't honored that means the group is effectively denying that request.

Calling "shotgun" is just shorthand for calling dibs on the "shotgun" position in a car (front passenger side).

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Why did you write "diber" rather than "dibber"? –  jwpat7 Sep 29 '11 at 14:08
@jwpat7 - I tried both (and one accidental three b version too). The one b version looked best to me. Perhaps because "dibs" itself doesn't have two "b"s in it. –  T.E.D. Sep 29 '11 at 16:25
As noted in a double consonant article, "Consonant digraphs are used in English to indicate the preceding vowel is a short (lax) vowel, while a single letter often allows a long (tense) vowel to occur." Thus, "diber" typically is pronounced with a long i and "dibber" with a short. That said, your "dibbber" construction certainly has possibilities... –  jwpat7 Sep 29 '11 at 17:06
Calling "shotgun" is just shorthand for calling dibs on the "shotgun" position in a car (front passenger side). That's where it originated, but in the UK at least you can call "shotgun!" or "shotgun [object]!" much as you would call dibs. –  starsplusplus May 21 at 16:04

In Chicago, calling "dibs" on a parking spot is a universally honored, de facto law during the winter season. Street parking in the neighborhoods is always in short supply, and after a snowstorm, the rule is, if you shovel the snow out of your parking spot, for the next few days you are permitted to claim dibs on that spot by placing some godawful piece of furniture (or some other nearly worthless domestic item) when vacating the spot. Here is one website documenting the creativity of some of these dibs claims.

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protected by tchrist Aug 13 at 14:47

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