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I have recently come across the phrase "the screaming abdabs". It is used in sentences such as "it gave me the screaming abdabs", abdabs being and old-fashioned word meaning 'a case of extreme anxiety'. What I want to know is if the phrase can be used in modern writing or, if not, what period of time the phrase comes from or when it is acceptable to be used? Is it Victorian or 20th century or something else? Thanks.

  • I don't think it's really correct to say abdabs is an old-fashioned word meaning 'a case of extreme anxiety'. I suspect it's just a "nonce-word" that to a first approximation only ever existed in this quaint/dated expression. OED's first recorded instance (as hab-dabs) is 1946 (atypically, that one is without screaming). – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '14 at 17:32
  • My Collins dictionary has it as a single word... strange. Thanks for the help FumbleFingers. Now I know it might have been used from 1946 onward. – Chimere Dec 13 '14 at 17:41
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    Google Books has only half-a-dozen recorded instances of any versions before 1960, and most of those are actually hyphenated had-dabs. Increasingly from then on, the vast majority of later instances are single-word abdabs preceded by screaming. People only know what it means because it's obvious from the context in which the fixed expression is used, not because it's a "word" with a defined meaning. – FumbleFingers Dec 13 '14 at 17:49
  • More common, at least in modern american usage, is the seemingly equivalent "Heebie-Jeebies". The two appear to be usable more or less interchangeably. (i.e. That spooky old house gave me the heebie-jeebies.) – LessPop_MoreFizz Jan 4 '15 at 4:40
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    My parents used the phrase 'having the screaming abdabs' in the sense that someone was very upset or angry or making a big fuss about something. It was particularly used of a child having a tantrum, i.e. not having an ascertainable cause. My father was in the army during WW2. – user152171 Dec 19 '15 at 23:46
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Dictionary discussions of 'abdabs'/'habdabs'

The word habdabs (or abdabs, with a dropped h) appears to have been rather common in British English, but it seems never to have caught on in North America. Several dictionaries offer rather sketchy information on it. From Tony Thorne, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1990):

screaming (h)abdabs n pl British a state of mental agitation bordering on hysteria. Usually heard in the phrase 'It gives me (a case of) the screaming abdabs'; it makes me extremely irritated, agitated.

From John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, third edition (2009):

abdabs

give someone the screaming abdabs induce an attack of extreme anxiety or irritation in someone. {Abdabs (or habdabs) is mid 20th-century slang whose origin is unknown. The word is sometimes also used to mean an attack of delirium tremens.}

From John Ayto & John Simpon, The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (1992):

habdabs noun Also abdabs. Great anxiety, the heebie-jeebies; esp. in phr. to give (someone) the screaming habdabs. 1946–. SPECTATOR Treasure Island gives pleasure and excitement to some and the screaming habdabs to others (1962). [Origin unknown.]

From Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, eighth edition (1984):

abdabs. In don't come—or give methe old abdabs, don't tell me the tale: C.20, esp. WW2. By itself, abdabs was, in WW2, occ. used for 'afters' [that is, "second course"]. —2. In the screaming abdabs, an attack of delirium tremens: since the late 1930s. Since ca. 1942, abdabs has sometimes been hab-dabs. This is prob. the orig. of the abdabs 'given' in sense 1. —3. In have the screaming abdabs, to be in a state of enraged frustration: R[oyal] N[avy], M[erchant] N[avy]: since ca. 1950.

...

hab-dabs (occ. habs-dabs). Often, the screaming hab-dabs.) Var of ab-dabs, q.v., nervous irritation: mostly RAF: since ca. 1937.

If you accept Partridge's chronology, abdabs/habdabs goes back to at least 1937 and may have originated as a term for an attack of delirium tremens. Of the four books cited, three suggest that the word was not yet obsolete at the time those books were published. The exception, Ayto's book on English idioms, refers to habdabs/abdabs as "mid 20th-century slang," which I suppose could be taken to imply that it was no longer current in 2009, though Ayto's notation is somewhat ambiguous.


Recent published instances of 'abdabs'/'habdabs'

A turn through Google Books search results indicates that, prior to their work in Pink Floyd, Syd Barret and Roger Waters played in a band called Sigma 6 that "underwent a dizzying succession of name changes: from the T-Set to the Megadeaths, to the Architectural Abdabs, or Screaming Abdabs, or just plain Abdabs" [source: Nicholas Schaffner, Saucerful of Secrets: The Pink Floyd Odyssey (1992)].

The search results also indicate that abdabs/habdabs continues to appear in writing published as recently as 2007, in John Osborne, A Ranging Son [snippet]:

Many people had already moved or were in the process of moving, but before departing had left signs and omens that gave Hlupo and Dofasi the screaming habdabs.

and 2008, in Dexter Petley, One True Void [combined snippets]:

I didn't want Maxine to make her hate herself more than she probably did. I didn't want to have to hear one of her 'outbursts,' her 'abdabs,' while Maxine was in earshot.

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The expression was certainly alive and well in post-war Britain, but I suspect its decline started sometime in the late-sixties or seventies.

Typically it might be used for describing a thoroughly tiresome situation or person. That car won't start again; it's giving me the screaming bloody abdabs.

I recall hearing it used by a wages clerk as : That woman has made yet another spurious query about her payslip, she's giving me the screaming abdabs.

My sense is that it arose during the Second World War and was especially a favourite of ex-service people.

I believe that people who used the expression did not have the idea of 'anxiety' clearly in their minds. They were not, in effect, saying 'it makes me anxious'. It was an expression that took on a life of its own, as a dramatic and intense way of expressing one's displeasure.

Edit 20/12/15 - one year after posting this answer.

At the time of my original post I had clearly not looked at the entry in the OED - which I feel I should quote below:

Nervous anxiety, the heebie-jeebies, esp. in phr. to give (a person) the screaming habdabs.

1946 Penguin New Writing 28 177 Come on, kid. This joint gives me the hab-dabs.

1962 Spectator 8 June 761/3 Treasure Island gives pleasure and excitement to some and the screaming habdabs to others.

1963 Spectator 19 July 72 A desperate tension which the slightest crisis will transform into the screaming abdabs once more.

1966 L. Davidson Long Way to Shiloh ii. 28 Uri's whimsy-shrouded secrecy, strenuously maintained throughout the journey, had already brought on a severe attack of the habdabs.

The etymology is shown by the OED as unclear - but with British expressions of this kind, which emerge in the 1940s, foreign influence seems likely - some contributors have suggested services slang. One person I knew, who often used it, was ex-Royal Navy of the WW2 era.

However I disagree with the OED's suggestion of a meaning connected to heebie-jeebies. The latter, in my opinion, means something rather different to the screaming (h)abdabs.

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I got the expression in the 1960's from my father, a former R.M. Commando, though he never explained where he got it or it's origin. For us it always meant "a state of extreme frustration/agitation". Purely speculatively (based on the sound) I'd say it could possibly have come from troops who had served in the Middle East.

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    Hello, Paul. I am not sure whether you've read the other two answers which have good examples and reference. We encourage using research and reference when answering a question. Your post reads more like a comment than an answer. When you have 50 reputation points, you will be able to post a comment. – user140086 Jul 6 '16 at 11:58
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This article says that Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) included abdads in "his invented slang Nadsat, which was made up of Anglicised Russian words. His dictionary contains several hundred entries for three letters: A, B, and Z.". "Combing through his list of words is fascinating. Abdabs, for example, is defined as a “fit of nerves, attack of delirium tremens, or other uncontrollable emotional crisis”. http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/36257/1/slang-dictionary-created-for-a-clockwork-orange-discovered

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