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Etymology Online dates chatterbox to 1774, understandably as a concatenation of the words chatter and box.

To me, it seems like the connection stems from "a heavy blow of gossip/chatter".

When was this word first used and in what context, more specifically as a noun?

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No, it's box as container, not box as in fighting. Someone might be able to post some OED citation data. –  Andrew Leach Jul 31 '12 at 10:12
    
@AndrewLeach - Thanks, Andrew. I couldn't decide on which variation of box it was and thought the blow to be more likely. Rethinking it, however, a box of chatter describing a person does seem more likely. –  Ste Jul 31 '12 at 10:41
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2 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The OED's first citation is

1774   C. Clive Let. 13 Jan. in D. Garrick Private Corr. (1831) I. 604   But I suppose his father can, for he is a fine chatter-box.

but it's easy to find a couple of antedatings:

1761   C. Morell The History of James Lovegrove, Esq II 95   Hold, hold Chatter-box! To your Buſineſs— 1762   Monthly Review Vol. XXVI 112   a ratting braggadocio, a conceited fop, an eternal chatter-box!

Neither citation sheds any light on the etymology. But I note that prattle-box is obviously formed on the same lines as chatter-box and appears somewhat earlier:

1671   J. Glanvill Disc. H. Stubbe 2   Gross Ignoramusses, Illiterate Fools, Prattle-boxes, Catch-Dotterels,..Tories, Cheats, and poor Devils.

And prattle-basket is even earlier:

1602   N. Breton Mothers Blessing sig. E1   But if she be ilfauour'd, blind, and old, A prattle basket, or an idle slut.

I think these earlier forms provide support for chatter-box being originally understood as "a container full of idle talk".

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The OED also shows the first use of chatterbox as being 1774. It suggests ‘perhaps in origin akin to clapdish’, ‘a wooden dish with a lid, formerly carried by lepers, beggars from the lazar-houses, and mendicants generally, to give warning of their approach, and to receive alms.’ It had a secondary meaning, now obsolete, as ‘jocularly used of a talkative mouth.’ I don't think the OED comment means that chatterbox is a phonetic corruption of clapdish, but rather that a chatterbox might once have been something like a clapdish.

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