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Just exactly what is a bibs and a bobs? And where the heck did that expression come from, anyway?

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Do you mean "bits and bobs"? – Steve Melnikoff Nov 11 '10 at 16:46
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I think both terms are in use?!? – vonjd Nov 11 '10 at 18:14
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Google/BNC: "bits and bobs" 3.6M/47, "bibs and bobs" 80k/1. Partridge only mentions "bits and bobs" — twice, actually —, but doesn't provide etymology. Several theories can be found here. – RegDwigнt Nov 11 '10 at 19:12
up vote 7 down vote accepted

I believe the original version of this idiom is "bits and bobs".

It means the same as "odds and ends", which means "bits and pieces, remnants, leftovers". A "bit" was a coin (three-penny bit) and a "bob" was a shilling or twelve pence.

Wiktionary has a page for bits and bobs as well.

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Cultural aside: in the UK (at least), you also sometimes hear "odds and sods" (not to be used in ultra-polite company). – Benjol Jan 6 '11 at 9:25

I have an alternate etymology from Mehper (or perhaps just an extended one) based on the pre-decimalization British coinage system.

Prior to the 1970s when the British Pound was "decimalized" and became a fiat currency, British currency had three major denominations, originally based on gold, silver and copper coin values. Beginning in 1816 and until decimalization, a pound sterling (relatively close in value at the time to the older gold-based guinea) was divided into 20 shillings (the primary silver coin dating back to antiquity), which in turn was divided into 12 pence (minted of various arbitrary metals through the years, eventually settling on copper).

The exact values of coinage minted at each denomination was in flux for most of this period, but in the vernacular, a "bit" was slang for most any coin denominated in pence (less than a shilling), such as the haypenny, the penny itself, and the threepence and sixpence (1/4 and 1/2 a shilling respectively). A "bob" was slang for the shilling itself.

By today's standards, 1/20 of a British Pound Sterling (a 5-pence piece after decimalization) gets you pretty much nowhere at all, but prior to decimalization when the pound really was the value of a pound of silver, a shilling was not a trifling amount of money. Based on current silver prices, a shilling's spending power would be roughly equivalent to a 10-pound note or 10-dollar bill in your wallet today, so it was a primary denomination in the pre-decimalization era for everyday trade.

"Bits and bobs", then, would originally have been synonymous with "pocket change", a relatively minor but workable amount of money carried around to buy the sundry day-to-day consumable or disposable items a Londoner would need for their trade. The term then migrated, as Mehper says, to refer to these same arbitrary small items that said pocket change would buy.

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