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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"? 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
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    There's also "dribs and drabs", referring to random small amounts.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 14 '16 at 0:22
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Dictionary discussions of 'bits [or bibs] and bobs [or bats]'

Eric Partridge, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, eighth edition (1984) has entries for two similar sounding phrases:

bits and bats. Knick-knacks: rhyming s[lang]: C.20. Perhaps suggested by 'bits and pieces'.—2. Hence, esp. in the underworld, small pieces of jewellery: since ca. 1910.

bits and bobs. Midlands coll[oquial] for bits and pieces: poss[ibly] orig[inally] dial[ect]: still, late C.20, very much in use. Occ[asionally] used as v[erb], as in 'I were bittin' and bobbin' about, the whole morning.'

The fifth edition (1961) of Partridge's dictionary, however, has only the entry for "bits and bats."

Tom Dalzell & Terry Victor, The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2006), however, gives a very different impression of the two terms' age:

bits and bats. noun knick-knacks UK, 1961

bits and bobs. noun miscellaneous small articles UK, 1896 | "we've managed to offload a few bits and bobs ourselves but that's a lot of hassle"—Danny King, The Burglar Diaries p. 61, 2001

Jonathon Green, Chambers Slang Dictionary (2008) seems inclined to favor Partridge's dating over New Partridge's:

bits and bats. n. {Yorks[hire] dial[ect] bits and bats, bits and pieces} {20C+} (UK Und[erworld]) knick-knacks; items of jewellery.

bits and bobs. {Midlands dial[ect]} 1 {1950s+} bits and pieces. 2 {2000s} the female genitals.

None of these dictionaries lists "bibs and bobs" as a variant—but that is hardly evidence that the pronunciation "bibs and bobs" is idiosyncratic to the poster—or even especially rare in the wild.

Several dictionaries of English idioms have entries relevant to "bits and bobs." From Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms (1998):

bits and pieces British, American & Australian bits and bobs British small things of different types | Can you tidy away all your bits and pieces before you go to bed? | I put all the bits and bobs I can't find a home for in this drawer.

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

bits and pieces (or bobs) an assortment of small or unspecified items

And from Longman Dictionary of English Idioms (1979):

bits and pieces/bobs 1 not f[orma]l small things, such as one's belongings or the things that are used as additions to something else: the thieves stole my furniture, my radio, and (all) my bits and pieces || my car itself did not cost much, but I had to pay a lot more for (all) the bits and pieces Also (not f[orma]l, rather old-fash[ioned]): bibs and bobs 2 small unconnected part of something: I overheard bits and pieces of their conversation even though the door was closed

This entry is striking for two reasons: first, it confirms that "bibs and bobs" is a significant variant of "bits and bobs"; and second, it suggests that "bibs and bobs" may be perceived in some quarters as being an older (or at least older-fashioned) form of "bits and bobs."


Early published instances of 'bibs and bobs'

By far the earliest match that a Google Books search finds for the phrase "bibs and bobs" is from Thomas Taylor, "Vanderdecken; or, The Flying Dutchman" (1846), reprinted in Dicks' Standard Plays, volume 6 (1890):

Janson. But I haven't made all the soundings yet. I've told you as how the capitals got spliced, but I haven't told you the circumstances which attended the ceremony—it's a long yarn, so as time's precious, I'll reduce it to bibs and bobs. Old Spintext, that's the parson, has tied the knot, you see, and we were on the point of leaving the altar, when up came some one as if to forbid the banns—

Winky. Der teufel!

Tom Taylor was an English playwright and a longtime contributor to (and eventually editor of) Punch. Taylor's best-remembered work today is Our American Cousin, whose fame rests on the fact that it was the play Abraham Lincoln was attending at the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. when he was assassinated.

The next-earliest matches that a Google Books search finds for "bibs and bobs" are from the 1960s. From Roy Fuller, With My Little Eye (1963) [combined snippets]:

I think Mr. Sandys saw in me a way to my father's heart and favour, because he answered remarkably freely.

'Lord, no,' he said. 'Only the house – mortgaged, of course – and a few bibs and bobs like savings certificates. But quite a big bank balance – must have won on the football pools.'

From "People Are Funny: In Fads and Fancies, Clues to Treasures," in World's Press News and Advertisers' Review, volume 71 (1964) [combined snippets]:

There are still too many marketing text book minds around. They try for a tidy and even pattern of development all over the land. They try and impose their will on publics that plainly have minds of their own. I'm not suggesting that marketing money should be frittered away in bibs and bobs all over the place. But I do suggest that the priorities in regional terms should be sorted out.

And from a review of Leon Block, The Baroque Guitarist (1968) in Music in Education, volumes 31–33 (1968[?]) [snippet view]:

Don't let the title fool you, because I couldn't find one piece actually written for guitar. The whole collection is made up of such bibs and bobs as Prelude from Sonata for cello and piano by Corelli, Allegro from Sonata in C by Scarlatti, Theme from A minor Concerto by Vivaldi, that the real gems such as John Dowland's shortest piece ever, Allemande (8½ bars), are easily missed.


Early published instances of 'bits and bats' and 'bits and bobs'

Both "bits and bats" and "bits and bobs" appear in print even earlier than the 1846 instance of "bibs and bobs"—and much more frequently thereafter.

The earliest Google Books match for "bits and bats" is from "Helen Bell," in Thomas Miller, A Day in the Woods; A Connected Series of Tales and Poems (1836):

"Another thing I've got to say, Jack Wap ; when measter Sam here knocked at th' door, you niver offered to stir to let him in ; but lay there roasting afore th' fire like a great pig, as you are : see if I iver save you any more curds, or whey, or new-cheese, or bits and bats."

This story is set at a farm in the vicinity of Corringham Scroggs, Lincolnshire, and the speaker is a native of that place. Several additional instances of "bits and bats" appear in nineteenth-century sources, none of them suggestive of underworld slang or of allusions to jewelry.

The earliest instance of "bits and bobs" come from 1784 nd the next-earliest from 1813. From Robert Bage, Barham Downs (1784), reprinted in The Novels of Swift, Bage, and Cumberland (1824):

Four years ago, says Thomas, with a sorrowful look, I had three hundred pounds at use ; and plenty of money always in the house ; but since my children grew up, expenses have run high, and my money has dwindled away, I know not how, by bits and bobs.

And from Catherine Hutton, The Miser Married: A Novel (1813):

I has bin a riteing this pissel at bits and bobs, jest has I cud gitt time ; for the minnitt I has anserred mastrs bell, in coms missis stable, or som otther o the ladys, to hacks me to quord a bočks, or tigh up a bundhill ; for yo nos I be jack of all treads. And so, as mississ horton do sy, ovur her drinck, my the singhell be morrid, and the morrid be hapy ; wich is hall at prisont frum

Yors to com and

RALPH RUSSETTING.


Conclusions

It appears to me from a review of the earliest occurrences and usage of "bits and bats," "bits and bobs," and "bibs and bobs" that all three expressions meant essentially the same thing—"odds and ends, bits and pieces, or thises and thats"—during their earliest period of documented use, from the late eighteenth century until at least 1900.

Of the three, "bits and bobs" has, according to my research, the earliest confirmed appearance in print (1784), followed by "bits and bats" (1836), and "bibs and bobs" (1846). I strongly suspect that the three forms originated as regional variants of the same expression in British English.

As for the etymology of the phrase, the "bits" part of the expression is self-evidently suitable to describe a fragment or small amount. "Bobs" may seem less obvious, but consider that the term bobtail (meaning a cut-off or naturally very short tail) dates to 1605, according to Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) and derives from a noun form of bob that dates back to the thirteenth century and means "bunch, cluster" or (in Scottish English) "nosegay" or "a knob, knot, twist, or curl esp. of ribbons, yarn, or hair." It wouldn't be much of a stretch to think of "bobs" as tag-ends of things and to use the expression "bits and bobs" to mean, essentially, "odds and ends."

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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
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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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